Politics

How far we have fallen

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A prosecution expert says Jose Padilla is competent to stand trial, contradicting defense claims that his imprisonment amounted to torture that had induced post-traumatic stress disorder in the dirty-bomb suspect.

That’s how it goes in these cases. The defense witnesses say he’s crazy; the prosecution witnesses say he’s not. The judge then has to sort it out.

I’m a bit skeptical of the PTSD claim. Solitary confinement can be mentally arduous, but it has a long history in our prison system, so it’s not particularly unusual, and it doesn’t routinely drive people nuts. If Padilla were particularly vulnerable it could cause problems, but in that case I would expect it to lead to something more concrete than PTSD, which while real is vague enough that it strikes me as a second-choice diagnosis by a defense team that knew a more serious diagnosis stood no chance.

Anyway, it’s a sideshow. I also don’t think we tortured Padilla, as the defense claims. But the government’s treatment of Padilla has still been outrageous. Holding a U.S. citizen for more than three years without trial should offend everyone. And suddenly releasing him rather than face Supreme Court review of his detention — and failing to charge him with anything related to the alleged dirty-bomb plot — was both cynical and a tacit admission that the detention would not stand up to scrutiny.

It’s good that Padilla is getting a trial. If he’s guilty, he should be put away for a long time. But it should not have taken three years of legal pressure to secure such a basic right for a U.S. citizen. And the fact that so many Americans supported the government is downright disgraceful.

The PTSD debate is central to the defense’s motion to have the case dismissed outright because the government’s conduct has been so outrageous. I think they’re arguing on the wrong basis, relying on showing torture rather than simply noting the blatant unconstitutionality of imprisoning a citizen without trial. While I’d prefer to have a trial, I will fully understand if the judge agrees with the defense motion. It will be yet one more lesson that basic civil rights cannot be taken away by government fiat, and that trying to do so ends up harming security more than helping it.

I also find it interesting to compare our treatment of Padilla (and the political reaction to it) with the fate of the Egyptian blogger found guilty of criticizing Islam and Hosni Mubarak. Many of the same people who support holding Padilla manage to (rightly) oppose the treatment of the blogger. But who got treated better? At least the blogger was charged, tried and convicted in open court. He had a chance to challenge the evidence against him. And his lawyers are appealing the sentence. He wasn’t simply picked up by security agents and thrown into solitary confinement for three years based solely on the government’s say-so.

Padilla’s alleged crime (not the long-dropped “dirty bomb” accusation, but the ones he is facing trial for) is more serious than simply posting opinions to a blog, of course. But the key word there is “alleged.” The fact remains that Egypt — a country known for repression, torture and other heavy-handed tactics — treated their suspect far more in accord with American standards than we did Padilla. And that’s a sad commentary on how badly the president’s overreach on security matters has tarnished the proud legacy of freedom here.