The Rights of Detainees: Who Is Protecting Whom From What?

Detaining suspects indefinitely without charging them is not easily reconciled with democracy. Worry about such methods seems to be migrating across political and religious lines. The public has reason to suspect that many detainees held at U.S. detention facilities in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere – some for several years – have nothing to do with terrorism.

What the government is authorized do to the few, it can eventually do to the many. Brushing aside constitutional limits jeopardizes the rule of law. A government that takes off its gloves, cautioned British statesman Edmund Burke, will not soon put them on again. “Criminal means, once tolerated,” he wrote, “are soon preferred.”

Anyone designated as an “enemy combatant,” according to the administration, stands outside the protection of international law. Imprisonment without legal recourse is not the only result of this policy. Under a largely secret program called “extraordinary rendition,” hundreds of suspects have essentially been kidnapped. They are transferred into the hands of foreign governments – such as Egypt, Syria, or Uzbekistan – where torture is practiced as a means of interrogation. Not all of them return alive.

Safeguarding the legal rights of terrorist suspects is of growing concern to the American people. That is the unexpected conclusion of a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, called “Abortion and Rights of Terror Suspects Top Court Issues.” (The poll was conducted before John Roberts was picked as the nominee to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor and then to be the next chief justice.) Asked about the most important matters facing the Supreme Court, those polled gave detainees’ rights the same high rating – almost two-thirds – as abortion rights.

White evangelicals were no exception. Breaking the stereotype that they back the Bush administration no matter what, their concern was predictably high on abortion (75 percent), but not far behind on detainee’s rights (69 percent). Though receiving little attention in the media, the poll is not likely to be ignored in the White House, since the president’s credibility rating stands at an all-time low.

While terrorism remains an ongoing threat, the public is uneasy about what we should or should not have to sacrifice for our safety. The tradeoff between civil liberties and protection is a question the public takes seriously, according to Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

Just before the August congressional recess, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) at the urging of the White House, prevented a Senate vote on legislation that would forbid the cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment of prisoners. Equally disturbing, the White House blocked the court-ordered release of further photos from the Abu Ghraib prison. According to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the images show evidence of “rape and murder.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that these photos depict “acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel, and inhuman.”

Pentagon officials oppose the release of these photographs, arguing that they would inflame the Muslim world and put the lives of American soldiers at risk. Whether the Pentagon is equally concerned about accountability for the abuses themselves, however, is far from clear.

Meanwhile, the president threatens to veto the Senate military appropriations bill if it contains an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) banning cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment of prisoners, or an amendment by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that would set up a 9/11-style commission to investigate abuses like the ones captured in the suppressed photos.

Are we still looking at a “few bad apples”? Or at the cover-up of a hidden culture (or subculture) of torture? As the Pew Research Center poll suggests, an increasing number of Americans are beginning to ask: Who is protecting whom from what?