With habeas corpus a thing of the past, with arrest and detention without charge permitted, with torture and spying without court oversight all the rage, with prosecutors free to tape conversations between lawyers and their clients, and with the judicial branch now infested by rightwing judges who would have been at home in courtrooms of the Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany, for all they seem to care about common law tradition, the only real thing holding the line against absolute tyranny in the U.S. has been the jury.
Now, with Jose Padilla–a US citizen who was originally picked up and held incommunicado on a military base for three and a half years, publicly accused (though never charged) with planning to construct and detonate a so-called "dirty" nuclear device (this a guy without a high school education!), all based upon hearsay, evidence elicited by torture, and a few overheard wiretapped conversations where prosecutors claimed words like "zucchini" were code for explosive devices-convicted on a charge of "planning to murder," we see that juries in this era of a bogus "war on terror" are ready to believe anything.
That last line of defense-the common sense or ordinary citizens in a jury box-is gone too.
The jury in this case apparently accepted the government’s contention that Padilla was a member of Al Qaeda, and had returned from a trip to Pakistan full of plans to wreak mayhem on his own country. They cared not a whit for the fact that the government had used methods against Padilla (three years of isolation and total sensory deprivation that had driven him insane) which would have made medieval torturers green with envy. They cared not a whit that there was no real evidence against Padilla.
This was, in the end, a case that most closely resembled the famous Saturday Night Live skit in which witches were dunked underwater to "prove" whether they were in fact witches, and where if they drowned, they were found to be innocent. In the end, Padilla’s jury simply bought the government’s wild and wild-eyed story. They decided he hadn’t drowned, so he must be guilty.
Padilla can now expect to spend what’s left of his life in prison. Since the government has already driven him insane, he will have the added burden of being mentally unbalanced from the outset of his incarceration. His survival prospects are not good.
The president promptly thanked the jury for their "good judgment."
We can no doubt expect many more Padillas now that the way has been paved for this kind of totalitarian approach to law enforcement.
Beginning today, we can expect the government to begin arresting people on an array of trumped-up charges, locking them away in black sites, on military bases, or maybe even overseas, subjecting them to all manner of torture, and then finally bringing them to trial on trumped-up charges. We can also expect juries, made fearful by breathless warnings that "evil ones" mean us and our nation harm, to buy the government’s stories.
Who is at risk? That’s hard to say, but it’s clear that it won’t just be hardened terrorist types. A presidential executive order signed by Bush on July 17 declares that anything that "undermining efforts to promote economic reconstruction (sic) and political reform (sic) in Iraq" could be deemed a crime making the perpetrator subject to arrest. Would writing essays critical of the president, the war in Iraq, or the "reconstruction" effort in Iraq meet that standard? Who knows? Would being interviewed for commentary as part of a news story on English-language Al Jezeera TV (which Bush and Cheney have declared to be supportive of the Iraqi insurgency, and which Bush reportedly at one point considered bombing!)?
And how about anti-war protesters? We already have Washington, DC, under pressure from Homeland Security, threatening the organization World Can’t Wait with multiple $10,000 fines for posting flyers around the city announcing an anti-war march and rally on September 15. If they go ahead with the protest, will they be joining Padilla?
I have little doubt that this administration would love to lock up journalistic critics and protesters in military brigs, so the question is: how would juries respond to charges that American journalists and protesters against the war were treacherously undermining the Bush war effort?
I used to be confident that most juries would laugh such cases out of court. After the Padilla decision, I’m not so sure.
You want to think that your fellow citizens have at least some measure of common sense, but this case suggests otherwise–that they are easily frightened, gullible, and willing to believe the most fantastic claims of the government.
The future does not look good for freedom in America.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His n book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" is published by Common Courage Press. Lindorff’s newest book is "The Case for Impeachment",
co-authored by Barbara Olshansky.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org