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November 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

The Patriot Act — A Necessary Tool Or An Attack On Our Freedom

Recently, the U.S. Justice Department has been put on the defensive in federal courts, asked to justify its denial of normal judicial protections to suspected terrorists.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York began considering the case of Jose Padilla, an American citizen born on the U.S. mainland of Puerto Rican parents. Padilla is the only American citizen charged with terrorism who was taken into custody on U.S. soil.

Since his arrest in June, 2002, at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Padilla, accused of planning to detonate a "dirty bomb," has been held incommunicado, classified as an "enemy combatant." In contrast to normal procedures, the government presumes Padilla’s guilt without a court having had the chance to weigh evidence arrayed against him. The manner of his detention was decided exclusively by the Executive Branch based on confidential information. Shortly after his arrest, President Bush called Jose Padilla a "bad guy" and a "would-be killer."

The basis for his confinement had not been considered by the courts until volunteer civil rights lawyers began proceedings to force the government to accord him the presumption of innocence, access to legal counsel and a fair trial. Padilla’s treatment is in contrast to the case of another American citizen, John Walker Lindh, captured in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban. Lindh was returned to the United States, permitted legal counsel, given a trial in open court, at which time he pleaded guilty and is now serving a prison term.

In this week’s Hot Button Issue Poll, Herald readers are asked to express an opinion about the appropriateness of the federal government’s treatment of suspected terrorists who are American citizens.

The Executive Branch draws its powers to suspend the civil rights of accused terrorists from the 2001 "Patriot Act," passed some eight weeks after 9/11. The bill authorized the federal government to employ extraordinary investigative measures to foil terrorist plots on U.S. territory and to hold individuals suspected as terrorists without being formally charged and precluding their right to legal counsel. The bill’s preamble states as its purpose, "To deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world (and) to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools."

In the Court of Appeals case, as reported by the New York Times, two judges were dubious of the government’s position, while one seemed to approve of it. Judge Rosemary Pooler said, "As terrible as 9/11 was, it didn't repeal the Constitution." Judge Barrington Parker was concerned that if the courts accepted the government argument, "we would be effecting a sea change in the constitutional life of this country." Judge Richard Wesley, however, maintained that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were different from other conflicts. "This happened on our soil," he said.

Not since the days of WWII has the Executive Branch applied such draconian measures to individuals suspected of terrorism. During that five-year conflict, some 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly herded into guarded camps, although individually none was accused of collaboration with the enemy. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his executive powers to order that move, one that in hindsight was recognized as a mistake. In 1983 a U.S. Congressional Commission found that the action was rooted in "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." Subsequently, the government apologized to survivors of the internment camps, awarding some monetary compensation.

Since the Patriot Act was passed and employed by eager law enforcement officers, a national debate is on-going between those favoring such invasive anti-terrorist strategies and others who consider them unconstitutional and a threat to the fundamental freedoms that every American citizen is guaranteed by their Constitution.

In the Padilla case the government argues that the nature of the conflict means that military principles, not the usual rules of the American criminal courts, need to be applied to protect the country properly. Lawyers arguing on behalf of Mr. Padilla told the judges that the government was distorting principles of American liberty by expanding battlefield concepts to civilian life. One lawyer, Jenny S. Martinez, said, "The president seeks an unchecked power to substitute military power for the rule of law."

Since its enactment, national polling shows a majority of Americans favoring the Patriot Act, although few had studied its details. Those who oppose it cite the nation’s mistakes of the Japanese internment of 1942 and warn that the suspension of civil rights for accused terrorists permitted by the act could move the United States, a nation that prides itself on individual rights and freedoms, away from its founding principles and in the direction of police state tactics.

Do you agree with the Justice Department’s policy to suspend the constitutionally guaranteed rights tendered to the accused in the interest of better controlling the terrorist threat?

Please vote above!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Herald readers will find additional coverage of the Padilla case in "Congress & The President" feature block of this week's edition.

This Week's Question:
Do you agree with the Justice Department’s policy to suspend the constitutionally guaranteed rights tendered to the accused in the interest of better controlling the terrorist threat??

US . Residents
. PR
Yes 35%
51% No 55%
7% Not sure 10%


.To submit your idea for a future PR Herald poll question or "Hot Button" issue, please click here.

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