In the debates leading up to the enactment of the U.S. Constitution, our American ancestors made a demand. If we accept the Constitution and the federal government it is calling into existence, they said, then we demand passage of a Bill of Rights immediately after the Constitution is adopted.
The reason they made that demand was twofold. First, they didn’t think the Constitution, as written, adequately protected them from potential abuses of power at the hands of federal officials. Second, they were certain that in the absence of express protections of rights and guarantees, federal officials would do very bad things to people, including innocent people.
They were right on both counts. Just ask Lakhdar Boumediene.
For 8 years we’ve been told by federal officials, including the president, the vice president, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CIA, that the prison camp they established in Cuba housed dangerous and evil terrorists. Trust us, they claimed. There are no innocent people here at Guantanamo Bay.
But of course the critical question was: How do you know? How do you know that these people are really guilty of terrorism? And whenever some asked that question, the answer always has been: Trust us. We’re federal officials. We know a terrorist when we see one.
Yet, the Pentagon has now released to France a man named Lakhdar Boumediene, who has been imprisoned and tortured at Guantanamo Bay for almost 8 years.
Why did the Pentagon release Boumediene, a man they held and treated as a dangerous and evil terrorist for almost 8 years? One reason: he was innocent. Yes, innocent. Completely innocent. The president of the United States, the vice president, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CIA imprisoned and tortured an innocent man for almost 8 years, and then simply released him without even the hint of an apology.
Perhaps I should mention that Boumediene has a wife and two small daughters, ages 13 and 9. He’s missed the last 8 years watching his daughters grow from toddlers into young girls.
In the post-9/11 paranoia that gripped U.S. officials, Boumediene was arrested in Bosnia on suspicion of having bombed the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. Bosnian courts dismissed the charges for lack of evidence. U.S. officials didn’t like that. Despite the lack of evidence, they were sure that Boumediene was guilty. So, they simply kidnapped him in Bosnia and whisked him away to their torture and sex abuse prison camp in Cuba.
Boumediene’s name might be familiar. It is his name that appears in a major Supreme Court decision entitled Boumediene v. Bush, which established that the Gitmo prisoners could challenge their imprisonment in U.S. federal courts through habeas corpus. You’ll recall that the Pentagon’s position was that its power should be omnipotent — beyond the principles of the Constitution and the control of the federal courts.
The case of Lakhdar Boumediene reminds us why our American ancestors demanded passage of the Bill of Rights. They weren’t too excited about the idea of calling a federal government into existence. They were certain that federal officials would start doing things like imprisoning and abusing innocent people.
That’s why the Bill of Rights requires a speedy trial — to ensure that people aren’t imprisoned indefinitely or for 7 1/2 years.
That’s why it includes a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments — to ensure that federal officials wouldn’t torture and abuse people.
That’s why it includes a right of trial by jury — to provide an independent process by which it can be determined whether a person is guilty or not.
That’s why it includes a guarantee against self-incrimination — to ensure that federal officials couldn’t torture or otherwise coerce confessions out of people, including the innocent.
Thank goodness for the wisdom, foresight, and courage of our American ancestors for demanding passage of the Bill of Rights. It’s their wisdom, foresight, and courage that are so desperately needed today.