Bush and His 'Enemies of The People'

As a legal concept, can someone explain the difference between President George W. Bush's "enemy combatant" and Josef Stalin's "enemy of the people"?

I don't think there is one.

In each case, a national leader on his own, without courts, without laws, without clear definitions, dreams up a label. His government then applies it to certain people -- and then they're gone.

"For the first time in our history," notes former U.S. Vice President Al Gore -- the man who won the votes yet lost the White House -- "American citizens have been seized by the executive branch of government and put in prison without being charged with a crime, without having the right to a trial, without being able to see a lawyer, and without even being able to contact their families.

"President Bush is claiming the unilateral right to do that to any American citizen he believes is an 'enemy combatant.' Those are the magic words. If the president alone decides that those two words accurately describe someone, then that person can be immediately locked up and held incommunicado for as long as the president wants, with no court having the right to determine whether the facts actually justify his imprisonment."

I'll never cease to be amazed at what a non-issue this is. Gore's speech was a half-day wonder, buried inside most newspapers and newscasts. Even among the politically literate, no one in America talks about this.

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Throw a Russian oil oligarch in jail and announce he may have to wait two years for a trial, and everyone gasps at the horror of it, and governments and editorial boards all start scribbling out their indignation and their concern for democracy.

Yet in America for more than two years we have imprisoned upwards of 650 people in a U.S.-controlled chunk of Cuba, where our most inalienable rights and highest principles apparently don't apply. And we refuse to say anything about their fate.

At some point, no doubt declaring ourselves dizzy with success in the war on terror, we'll let them be tried or released. Or not. After all, we are still expanding the prison complex in "Gitmo," as Guantanamo is affectionately known. The Red Cross, which jealously guards its own neutrality -- so crucial to winning access to POWs -- recently was moved to call Gitmo "a legal black hole." And amid allegations of torture by U.S. guards, there have been dozens of suicide attempts among inmates.

Now given that we admit we don't even know who's shooting at us in Iraq, and given that U.S. forces have shot at two of the 24 members of our handpicked Iraqi Governing Council, isn't it possible that some of those corralled overseas, christened "enemy combatants" and shipped to Gitmo might be innocent?

After all, immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration overnight rounded up some 1,200 people of Arabic descent -- apparently the first 1,200 they could find, because virtually everyone was cleared by the FBI of any terrorism connection (though not before many had been held incommunicado for months, abused and terrified). The government struck out 1,200 times; who's to say it hasn't struck out again in Gitmo? Shouldn't there be some independent review of this?

And if not -- if we choose to deny fair trials to "enemy combatants" grabbed in Afghanistan or Iraq -- what will happen to U.S. soldiers who might be captured in those same lands?

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine. [www.thenation.com]