Habeas Corpus: An Old Law and a Strange Situation

Paris Hilton revels in her legal rights.

This town is on fire with chats about habeas corpus. Journals ignore it. Politicians pretend they don't understand the word. Lawyers perk their ears and bill people. The population at large goes back to sleep. The most divisive and important issues in this town are treated just this way, but the moldy aura of bad stuff surrounds these seemingly normal activities. Habeas corpus refers to the rule of law under which a person can petition if they are being held unlawfully, and apparently we are holding some people who have been asking around.

On June 26th I had the distinct pleasure of joining some of our nation's Congresspersons as they discussed habeas corpus, and more specifically whether it applies to those people who are being held in Guantanamo Bay as enemy combatants. Before I introduce the battle, let's have a brief look at those people who we'll be talking about.

Rep. Nadler, Chairman, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties
Rep. Franks, Ranking Minority Member
Mr. Katsas, Department of Justice
Lt. Com. Swift, Office of Military Commissions
Mr. Taft, Attorney
Mr. Berenson, Former Associate Council to the President
Mr. Hafetz, New York University School of Law

There were some other minor characters like Rep. Ellison and Rep. Jordan, but in the gloss these guys are the ones really throwing around the language. The whole thing starts with Mr. Nadler scolding some Code Pink ladies who showed up. He reminds them that this is a serious debate for serious people and that they shouldn't yell at the Congresspeople present. This because only a couple of days earlier Code Pink actually did have some screamers and they had to be booted out of a hearing by local law enforcement. He then reads an incendiary opening statement in which he whips out Federalist 81 and sprays it all over the composed face of Mr. Franks. He chats about tyrannical power and how there needs to be some sort of oversight in Guantanamo. His main beef? President Bush and the office of the Executive gets to chuck people into our prison in Cuba without telling anyone who's down there, what for, or for how long. This could result in a "disappearing person" incident in which a person is abducted by us and is never seen again by human eyes, most specifically those of his family. These situations tend to be unsightly (pun), and cause some turmoil. He then yields to Mr. Franks.

Mr. Franks, cool and composed, gossips to the room about how the Constitution doesn't guarantee habeas to anyone (true), much less foreigners. He says that people in Guantanamo are "bloodthirsty killers," and that the "liberal intelligentsia" has some really "insane notions." Mr. Nadler appears undisturbed, but ready to strike. It's time for the five witnesses. There are five minutes from each person, but I'll save you the trouble since the question was pretty simple.

Do you think that we should allow persons in Guantanamo Bay to petition for habeas corpus?
Katsas: no-we already give them too many protections
Swift: yes-remember that one time that we signed at the Geneva Convention?
Taft: sure-we could use a dose of credibility and we're a little lacking
Berenson: no-these people are crazy
Hafetz: yes-Berenson is crazy

Pretty intense, and an even divide. Mr. Nadler decides to take on the biggest fish first. He swivels to Berenson and lines up for the kill. He asks Berenson a demure question-"What provision is in the law right now that requires us to make sure we have the correct prisoner and a reasonable cause to hold them without trial?" "A Combatant Status Review Tribunal," he responds. "We aren't legally obligated to do that, though, are we Mr. Berenson?" "Well, no, but it's the Administration's policy..." Mr. Nadler then gives a very scandalous rant about the policies of the current Administration, makes CSRTs sound like a bunch of monkeys jerking off around a fire, and then asks again what the LEGAL obligation is to prove that we are torturing the correct person in Cuba after ripping them away from their homeland. Mr. Berenson goes quietly to sleep and dreams of a place where angry people don't yell at him.

In defense of Berenson, Mr. Franks lets loose that Jihadists are Nazis and that only bounders and scoundrels talk about legalities when fighting terrorists. He lays into Mr. Taft and comes up with a foul ball. Mr. Taft, you see, is no ordinary man. He's actually William H. Taft IV of the Taft Presidency seed, and his house will not fall to the likes of a mere Arizona Ranking Member. He specifically addresses that he doesn't think we have to give Guantanamo prisoners habeas corpus, but that the court already knows how to handle these proceedings and the cases will be straight-forward since most of the people held there (of the 375) are either leaving soon or openly admit that they will attack us if set free. Mr. Taft thinks we're only talking about a handful of cases that call for due process and those should be addressed as good global politics. Mr. Franks is stunned into silence by the eloquent solution this man has put forward, and Mr. Taft is never called upon again by either party.

Mr. Nadler then calls on Swift to patronize to Mr. Franks, and Mr. Franks calls upon Mr. Berenson to condescend to Mr. Nadler. After about four hours of bickering, they end the hearing with nothing decided, though Mr. Nadler clearly has the more powerful tongue and Mr. Franks appears full of gas.

But what's the real deal? Actually Mr. Taft (IV!) brilliantly put forward the exact problem and solution. At a time like this when we have no other legal recourse, of course we have to give people the ability to contest whether or not they actually are enemy combatants. That most of them freely say yes they are makes the process that much more simple. Unfortunately, I know exactly why Mr. Franks and the other Republicans really really resent this solution. Over the course of the hearing it became obvious that Mr. Franks really does believe that Liberals are willing to do anything to help terrorists, and that they do so intentionally. Even though the Supreme Court has a conservative majority right now, most appellate courts are still liberal-leaning. The thought of trusting the sensitive cases of terrorists to a liberal court that will release them on a technicality while knowing full well that they are our enemies seems to them like horrific policy and bad public service. At best it hands liberal judges cases that they can use to say that they are tough on crime, and at worst it leaves Republicans in a position where they have to justify to the American people why a known terrorist has just been set free.

But then again, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of extending habeas corpus to Guantanamo detainees before, and even Republicans don't entirely trust the President to have the only say in who goes to jail and for how long. I mean c'mon. What if we get a Democrat President?


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Art of Reduction

An average United States citizen learns how to swim.

Right now I'm slowly making my way through The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I say slow because I read about as fast as slow-to-mid-level student of the third grade, and if that isn't enough of a hindrance, the object itself is a pretty impressive tome of somewhere around 1100 pages. Still, even a person as dense as myself is forced to pause for a second.

"There's something going on here," I muse to myself, "that reads a little funny."

Some further thoughts occur. In Doyles' stories, Sherlock Holmes is a very shrewd mind capable of deducing a number of things because he treats his mind like an attic. As he states,
"you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying has hands upon it."
A novel thought, and one that becomes a theme in Doyle's stories.

His epistemology, extracted from various comments and plot lines, must read something like this: There are too many things in the world to know, so many in fact that it would be impossible to learn even a fraction of them, so the person who is truly wise will pick one specialty and will have no concern for anything else. In true late-enlightenment fashion, these specialties are not always bound by traditional disciplines. Holmes has perfected the art of solving crimes, and even the word perfected might be an understatement. In order to do so, he had to take relevant data from Botany, Geology, Chemistry, Anatomy, and a number of other traditional fields, but as a student in any of them, Watson tells us, he would be limited at best.

Many other characters become the victims of depending too much on one discipline. Lestrade, a Scotland Yard detective who is energetic and good at the physical task of gathering evidence, sometimes doesn't know what he's looking at once he's got it. Many of the criminals have studied some profession or another, but end up getting caught because they have no consideration for the art of crime. And that is exactly how Doyle thinks of it, as an art-form.

Professor Moriarty, Holmes' arch-villian, is not psychologically disturbed, did not come from a bad home, and is a functioning member of society. He turns to crime because, as he studied the field the exact same way Holmes did, he found that he would rather use his knowledge to his own advantage and not for the aid of others. There is no indication that he is less knowledgeable than Sherlock Holmes, and that is what makes him the most dangerous.

So what makes an average guy like me hesitate? Well, outside of the fact that in the US criminals are archetypically shown as being somehow motivated to crime by psychological problems, fits of rage, or mere stupidity (perhaps a mixture of the three), and rarely have any claim to knowledge, our standard detective is a bit of a cad. On CSI our detectives can be seen labouring over a case for twelve hours a day, studying all the evidence, cataloging the minutia, memorizing it, taking everything into account before finding the deranged person who was not operating rationally at the time. Epistemologically, that says something rather backwards in our view of humanity, perhaps something like this: In order to gain knowledge, you must study hard, follow the methods you were taught in school, and work really long hours (or else you're just some crazy and being a crazy means you're also probably a criminal).

Considering that Holmes very rarely has a case he does not solve in three days or less, a side-by-side comparison says something about our method of attaining success. In our view, if you go through the process that you've been taught, you will succeed. In Doyle's view, it takes more than bookwork (and more than an adversary, really) to succeed, it takes an intentional narrowing of one's focus and a concerted effort to clean out all other things over a lifetime. It also takes the imagination to see a new study between the established fields that are taught to everyone else.

The difference in ideology is noticeable in reality, and I have to say I'm a little worried. Our typical media impressions appear to reinforce the institutions of education that are becoming rapidly outdated, and telling kids to study hard isn't enough anymore to ensure their success. Further, we appear to be telling people that you don't necessarily have to be smart to hold a job, you just have to be willing to work a lot of hours, and if that is true, our corporations are going to hit some major road-blocks when all they have left are automatons in their leadership roles. Thinking between established fields to find new technologies, new methods, and new ideas are what has made the United States the economic force that it is. Teaching kids that they have to develop a creative mind and apply that creativity to their studies, not just get good grades, and that they have to take charge of their own education, puts more responsibility on their shoulders and forces them to learn. Instead of teaching our society at large that they only need to sit back and take notes, I would rather teach them, as Holmes teaches Watson, that in order to succeed, "you need a little imagination." Does that notion read a little funny?


The Sanctity Of Life

Rabbits don't lay eggs.

In the beginning was the proclamation "whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed..." (Gen 9:6) and in the end there was "Father forgive them, they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). In between is a complex problem left completely unresolved, and too many verses for even the scholar to sift through authoritatively.

The question: Do we have the justification to kill? Capital punishment still exists in Christian societies, and most look to the Law set out by God in the Old Testament. After all, the Old Testament and the New Testament are divided so that the Old Testament deals with societal ethics, and the New with personal ethics. Therefore, though Jesus said to forgive personal offences, the Law and the judges are compelled to destroy those who insult God. Hank Hanegraaff articulates the argument for capital punishment best when he says that it is a "sanctity of life" issue. Those who kill the apex of God's creative energies are not only destroying a human being, they are sending a personal defiance to God, a personal attack against His sacredness. To allow such a rejection of God's Will is to reject God's majesty and a court cannot do that. Such people need to be terminated, if only because an insult to God should not go unpunished.

But there are those who do not agree. The charges brought against Jesus by the Sanhedrin, those that ultimately led to his crucifixion, were of rousing the Jews not just against the Romans, but against God (Mark 14:60-65). The Law passed down from Genesis to punish those who insult God with death was the same justification used to kill his Son on a cross. If one who is without sin can slip through the Law, then there are others too. Those on the other side say that the Law was replaced, through Jesus' subjection to it, by Love and forgiveness.

Still there is no way to know for sure. Jesus did not come to change the government; he specifically tells Satan that when he is tempted in the desert. If that is true, then perhaps the Law still stands and the sanctity of life must still be defended. To the death.


Salman Rushdie and the Sea of Stories

Civilized People Disagreeing With Rushdie's Portrayal of Islam.

Another day, another mixed bag of death threats and honors for Salman Rushdie. Sorry--Sir Salman Rushdie. Knighted by the Queen of England for, presumably, his expansive tomes based not-so-loosely off The Arabian Nights, Rushdie had not even exited the building when riots broke out in Pakistan. The lower house of the Pakistani government, pushed to arbitrary action by protests in the street, shot off a condemnation that passed unanimously through their ranks.

For those unfamiliar with the scandal and gossip, Rushdie penned The Satanic Verses with a section that explores the life of the Messenger Mohammed. Based on the original "Satanic Verses," but with a couple details added, Rushdie posits that Mohammed originally called for polytheism to become popular and that his scribe changed part of The Qur'an because he wasn't sure if the Messenger was correct. This in a culture that refuses to create any sort of artistic imagery, however lovingly rendered, of the Prophet or God because the art of mortal hands is lowly to the sacredness God. A man who breaks this age-old tradition of worship to, of all things, profane the name of the Prophet could certainly be seen as quite the sensation.

I guarantee a stoner somewhere is perking an eyebrow between thoughts of how totally connected everything is, and is now telling his friends that he is psychic. "Like, a really long time ago," he opines, "I totally saw this happening on TV or something, but it was like in my head and I like saw the future, dude. I'm telling you, man, it's all the same and it's like totally in my head!" That stoner is only partially wrong. It wasn't in his head and he didn't see the future, but he is witnessing the past all over again. In 1989 riots broke out in Islamabad over Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, and Ayatollah Komeini called for Rushdie's assassination.

That same stoner also has a point. It is interconnected. The Arabian Nights, The Qur'an, and the "Satanic Verses" are very old documents with very long histories of influence. As a member of a huge number of modern and post-modern writers who dug through the collective past of their people to bring rebirth to texts long out of common reading, Rushdie did to these books what Joyce, Bulgakov, and Derrida did to Homer, Jesus, and Plato. But it wasn't just about that, was it? Was there something else they had in mind? Oh, right! The hermeneutic legacy of books themselves! These texts are constantly being reinterpreted, retranslated, reconsidered, and reworked. They are the bedrock of creativity and as such they have no choice but to breathe through change. The intentional choice to reinscribe one of these relics is supposed to draw attention to the unintentional reinterpretation that happens in the heads of avid believers all the time. The conception that we have of Jesus isn't the same as the one carried in the Middle Ages. For that matter, neither is our conception of Plato. And it shouldn't be. The more we learn about the context and the language, and the more we think about these books, the more we contemplate our own situations, expressions, and very existence. In other words, the more we critically analyze these great tomes, the more creative we become ourselves.

Islam never quite learned to deal with post-modernism the way the so-called "Western Tradition" did. The people are furious, and they shout, and they try to put Rushdie to death, and they generally make quite the spectacle of themselves. The United States found a better way to kill their creative authors. Ignore them.