By DANIEL ADAM
Four years ago, Barack Obama ran for president on the promise of closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within one year of taking office. Today, the prison remains open—the pledge all but forgotten. Instead of dismantling Guantanamo and with it the government’s power to detain without a trial, Obama wants to expand this power and apply it to U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike. He is attempting to legalize through courts and legislation what Bush merely asserted through executive opinion.
On Dec. 31, 2011, the president signed into law the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, with a key provision that allows the U.S. government to imprison any person without trial or charges who is deemed a member of, or having “substantially supported” the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or “associated forces.” In January, Chris Hedges filed a lawsuit against the law and was joined by several other activists and journalists (including Daniel Elsberg and Noam Chomsky).
In court hearings the Obama administration refused to define terms such as “associated forces” and “substantially support” or say whether or not the plaintiffs could be imprisoned without trial for the journalistic and political activity they already practice. The government has refused to say whether people are already detained under this law, and has claimed that it would have the right to do so under previous laws anyhow.
In May, federal Judge Katherine Forrest issued an order temporarily blocking the government from using this provision. On Sept. 12 she ruled the indefinite detention provision unconstitutional, with an order to permanently bar its use. Forrest found that terms like “associated forces” and “substantial support” are so vague as to make it possible to detain people for the most basic exercise of free speech and political activity.
The Obama administration responded without delay, filing in rapid succession an appeal to overturn Forrest’s ruling and an emergency stay (to keep her ruling from going into effect during the appeals process). The stay was granted, and the appeal will go to the Second Circuit Court. If Forrest’s ruling is upheld there, the case will have nowhere left to go but the Supreme Court.
The determination with which Obama has defended this law now makes it clear that he favored it all along. The grand legislative good cop/bad cop routine has been exposed in court by a few activists.
Of course, turning back the 800-year-old right to a trial is only one part of Obama’s drive to strengthen the state’s repressive powers. Obama has claimed—and exercised—the right to assassinate U.S. citizens at will. He has gone to great lengths to defend torturers and war criminals, even leading an unprecedented campaign against those who expose these crimes. He has indicted six government whistle-blowers under the 1917 Espionage Act—twice the number indicted under all previous administrations combined. His administration has continued the policy of pre-emptive prosecution (a combination of frame-ups and criminalization of thought) and has overseen FBI raids and subpoenas of 23 labor, antiwar, and international solidarity activists.
Yet this wave of repression is by no means invincible. A national defense campaign prevented Chicano and antiwar activist Carlos Montes from serving a lengthy sentence on trumped up charges. Twenty-two other activists targeted with FBI intimidation have refused to testify at grand juries after two years of subpoenas, and have yet to be charged with contempt. The movement against the NDAA has won enough traction to win a rare (though fleeting) court victory and expose the real objectives of the Obama administration.
In the face of this offensive in general and in each particular case, we have a choice. We can remain silent, and embolden the reaction. Or we can use each instance of repression to educate, find allies, and inspire thousands and millions with confidence and determination through independent mass action in defense of our basic rights.
Capitalists may break their own laws when expedient, but their rule depends upon a widespread belief in their system’s morality and a fear of their power. When masses of working and oppressed people lose both of these through education, experience, and struggle, the continued existence of capitalism is put into question.
Photo: May Day 2012 protest in New York City. By Tony Savino / Socialist Action