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Civil Wrongs

Is This My Country?

by Barnabas
January 15, 2003

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Civil Wrongs_Barnabas-Is This My Country?
About twenty years ago, Canadian author and social critic Pierre Berton observed that Canada is more committed to order, and the United States to freedom.
When I first read Berton’s statement long ago, it had a ring of truth for me. I had reason at the time to be well acquainted with both nations. In the light of two heartbreaking stories this week, I wonder if Berton’s distinction still holds.

The first was the successful attempt of the American government, affirmed by an appeals court, to deprive a U.S. citizen of his rights to an attorney on the grounds that he is our prisoner of war. The second was the television picture of students and other legal visitors to the United States lining up to be registered, making it more convenient to the government to keep track of them. Not all such visitors, but those who are Muslims, or who subjectively look like Muslims, or who were born in countries where there are lots of Muslims.

I am not qualified to argue the law, but ethics is my bag. This means I am willing to say out loud that something smells bad. Both of these smell awful.

How can one of our own citizens be our prisoner of war? A citizen cannot make war against his own country. He may commit treason against it, which is worse; but if he is suspected of treason, he has the right to an attorney. Prisoners of war who are from nations at war against us do not need attorneys because war between nations is not, per se, a crime. Treason is a very serious crime, requiring ernest protection of the rights of those suspected of it.

If we allow our government to argue that one of us has no right to an attorney, the possible variations of the argument are endless. All defense attorneys are hindrances and nuisances to the government in its pursuit of suspects; that’s their job! Any challenge to the government—even an innocuous little essay like this one—may, at the will of a government representative, be perceived as a threat to national security. The government may assure us that it won’t perceive our particular threat in this way, but then it has already demonstrated that on this subject it cannot be trusted.

The registration of foreign Muslims and their look-alikes (ignoring the blond, blue-eyed ones with names like Sorenson) is at best lazy law enforcement. At worst it calls to mind such proud American moments as the displacement of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the cynical dishonoring of our treaties with native Americans.

When we say to our guests, “We suspect you because of your looks, your beliefs, and your country of origin,” we strike at the heart of every civil rights provision ever enacted. Ironically, American employers are required to hire people for the very reason that the government is harassing them. On the grounds of national security it stamps its “O.K.” on bigotry and makes ridiculous our claim to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.

We are not brave. The government is turning us into chickens, and then justifying any means it can to gather us under its wings.

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