Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Michael Ratner's speech on the state of the nation

Ruth: I was doing my report for Monday and e-mailed it to C.I. then went about figuring what to serve for July 4th because eight of my family, including myself, will be taking part in CODEPINK's "TROOPS HOME FAST!" fast.

We're doing the liquid fast so I came up with a list of beverages and headed for the grocery store. I came home and C.I. had left a message on the phone. When I called back, I was told that the report was fine as is but the speech by Michael Ratner was "pretty important" and asked would it be okay to pull that from the report and make it an entry by itself?

I had one problem with that, I had only noted a few lines from it.

"There's more?" C.I. asked.

Yes, there was a great deal more. I heard the beginning but was just attempting to enjoy it. Then Elijah was lost in his drawing, big X on the pages of coloring books mainly, so I grabbed my note pad and began taking notes.

I said I already had shorthand on quite a bit more and I could also go back and listen from the beginning to grab what I had missed while I was listening. C.I. said, "Don't go to all that trouble, but if you can get Tracey to scan the notes and e-mail them, I'll type them up." I would not dream of pushing my own work off on my granddaughter or C.I. but appreciated the offer.

This speech was broadcast Monday, June 26, on WBAI's Law and Disorder and Michael Ratner gave it as part of a panel discussion at the March 2006 Left Forum conference. I am coming in late but you can hear the entire speech by accessing the archives. Even with the recent Surpreme Court verdict Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the speech is an important one. I had not grasped the imporantance of it for this week until C.I. tied it into the Fourth of July. It is a very powerful speech and, on this day, one we should give attention to.

Where we are coming in, Mr. Ratner is discussing how he was writing an article entitled "Moving Toward a Police State or Have We Arrived?" in October of 2001 following, among other events, the passage of the Patriot Act, the trashing of guidelines in place to guarantee our rights after the governmental crimes of the sixties and seventies, and after the beginning of internal detention of Muslim immigrants on flimsy pretexts:

Was it really moving toward a police state? A police state to me is one in which there is no check on the executive? The executive wakes up one day and decides to arrest you or you or you. Decides to bomb something. Decides to do whatever. It's really a dictatorship. . . . And that really became for me a crucial beginning of what I saw happening in the country. And since that time of course we're four years later, four years of panels and every single month, things get much worse in terms of what this administration is willing to do.

Are we a tyranny?

I begin with the day I woke up and and saw on November 13, 2001, that the president has issued what he called military order number one. Military order number one is the one in which the president said, "I, as president of the United States, can arrest, detain, kidnap, whatever your, capture, whatever word you want to use, any noncitizen around the world. I can do that and I can hold them forever. I never have to try them, I simply have to hold them forever." And there's a part two of that order that says "Well, if I ever decide to try them, we can try them with a special military commision, kangaroo court," whever colloquial term you want to use.

So you have this order, this is already in 2001, we've talked about it at prior panels, it's well known, it's based on the president's claim of commander-in-chief power, it's claimed on a view that he can do whatever he wants. I consider that one bookend to what I call this moving towards a police state or tyranny in American right now. The other bookends, and I don't know what ones will be there tomorrow, but the ones that have come up the last few months, and there's a lot in between from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, but the ones that have come up in between are the ones that took place on December 30th of last year and, of course, the one that just took place recently having to do with spying, electronic surveillance.

December 30th of last year, the president signed the McCain Amendment. I consider that the other bookend to tyranny. The McCain Amendment, as you may recall, is the one that bans cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment -- a form of torture. It's passed because Congress said finally, "We're going to pass this." It's always been prohibited under US law but Congress said "We're going to do it again." They didn't do it in a great way, which I'll talk about, but they at least, did it.

It comes up to the president and the president says, "Well I never really liked this law, I didn't want Congress to pass this law, and I'm going to, in what's called a signing statement, I'm going to say what I think about this law."

I'm just going to paraphrase it, one paragraph, but if any of you have any questions about whether or not there's been a Coup d'eta in America, read that paragraph. You can't say you didn't know.

What it says, it says first: "That as the president, I can do what I think is necessary to protect national security" paraphrasing, "even if it means torturing people." I call that the Pinochet defense. So that signing order took place, it says first that: "I can do whatever I want in the name of national security, even torture people." Secondly, it says: "I can ignore congress completely, I don't care what they do, and, third, it says: "I can ignore the courts." So that's what I consider the other bookend and, in addition, of course, we have the bookend that took place at the end of, right now, it's continuing, the national security wiretapping, and that of course is where the president belives that he has the inherent authority to electronically surveil any of us.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, where I work, brought a litigation against that. Our plantiffs in that case actually are Center attorneys because what our Center attorneys do all the time is communicate with people all over the world, or their families, who this administration believes are alleged terrorists. Now what you've seen, of course, is an utter laydown in Congress on this law. Any legal arguments about this law are utterly and completely ludicrous.

There's no legal justification at all for what the president is doing and, in fact, in my first case that I ever brought at the Center, the famous lawyer named Arthur Kinoy, it was a challenge to wireless wiretapping, under John Mitchell, under Mitchell, and we held that unconstitutional when Arthur argued that in the Supreme Court and now of course we're seeing that again.

So those are the basic bookends of what I consider to be essentially a tyranny in America. In terms of the facts that have happened in the last four years, or course, as a lot of you are probably aware, the Center has been for four years now representing the Guantanamo detainees and now we're seeing national calls, world-wide calls, to close down Guantanamo.

What Guantanamo represents is first abitrary detention. The idea that under that military order under the president's commander-in-chief authority, that you can do whatever you want to human beings anywhere in the world, pick them up and put them in Guantanamo. We won, in the Supreme Court, the right to have those people go into a court. And then what happened, if you have any thoughts, two years of litigation later, if you have any thoughts, about what our Congress did, Democrats and Republicans, I want you to think about Guantanamo because there we had what's called the Detainee Treatment Act. And two years later, after we get 500 attorneys to start representing Guantanamo detainees, people from all over the world, really, to represent people, all over the world, all over the country, Republican, Democrat, and others, what happened is Congress, Republicans and Democrats, passed the Detainee Treatment Act and that's not only a serious kick in the teeth to our clients, that demonstrates the utter inability of our Congress to really deal with this current situation or willingness to deal with it.

What that act does is three things. One is it says the courts can't hear these cases anymore, the courts have no right to even consider why people are detained. Then it says evidence from torture can be used to keep people in prison. And the third thing it says is if anybody gets tortured in Guantanamo, they cannot sue for torture. So recently what came up is one of our co-counsel brought a lawsuit, we brought one at the Center and another one of our co-counsel brought a lawsuit because people are being force-fed at Guantanamo. They're being strapped down, huge tubes are being put in their noses. They're essentially being tortured through force-feeding and what does the government come in and do? It says, "Well we don't think this is torture but, in addition, even if it is, there's nothing you can do about it because our Congress has said you cannot do anything about torture."

So we're facing really, not just an administration run amuck, but in many ways a Congress that has been, really, a stepping-stone or a step-stool, unfortunately, for that administration. The second issue, of course, we're dealing with is this issue of torture and here's where I've actually been the most disheartened. I mean, it's clear to all of us that this admistration authorized torture, there's memos out there, there's the John Yoo stuff, there's that whole set of material.

And in the last few months, I've been doing a fair amount of speaking, around the country, at college campuses, and what I can't get over really is the way in which torture has really seeped into the fabric of this society so that students come up to me all the time and they say -- Well, they always ask, the first question is: "What about the ticking time bomb?" Then another one goes up to me and says, "I sort of agree with what Alan Dershowitz is saying -- you shouldn't torture people unless you have a judicial warrant to torture people."

[Laughter from the audience.]

It's funny and I want to laugh and I want to wring the student's neck -- but what's going on out here is that you have an administration that says it, you have a Congress and its law that's authorizing it, and then, as I'm going to get to, you have a Court that's beginning itself to say: "You may be able to torture in the interest of national security."

So we're reaching a point in this country where the public discourse is really adopting as part of it that we may be able to torture people in the interest of preventing terrorism for natioanl security. And that brings me to the case we just lost this case called Maher Arar. Maher Arar, as I'm sure you all know, is the Canadian citizen. There's a couple of recent Bob Herbert columns [New York Times] about him. He was the guy who was rendered, sent to Syria, for a kind of extraordinary rendention, for purposes of being tortured. We just lost the case, right over the water here, in the eastern district of Brooklyn, before a judge named Judge Traiger.

Judge Traiger was a former U.S. attorney, low and behold, the head of the Brooklyn Law School, which makes it hard for me to believe he wrote the opinion that he did. But if you have any doubts about what direction this country is going, you have to read that opinion.

He dismisses the case. He has to accept that Arar was sent to Syria for torture and he accepts that. He says, "Even assuming Arar was sent for torture, I'm dismissing this case because national security doesn't allow me to hear this case, because when you get into this case, it may effect our relations with Canada," oh, a bunch of other b.s. in the case.

But that's not the worst part of it. The worst parts are two pages of the opinion where he goes on and he speculates about whether the Constitution, the Constitution of the United States, bans torture?

And what he says is 'Yes, in a criminal case, you can't torture somebody. You're not supposed to, it's illegal, and if there's any evidence from torture, we can't, you can't use that in a criminal case."

But then he goes on, and it's not even necessary for the opinion, he goes on to say, "Well it might be different in a case where you're trying to prevent terrorism, that the Constitution may not prohibit torture if the purpose of the torture is for the purpose of preventing terrorism."

Now this is a federal judge sitting in the eastern district of Brooklyn, saying that it may be, that as a Constitutional matter, that one can use torture. So we're sitting here now in a country where we have an administration that, as we all know, has completely undermined any kind of controls, any kind of checks and balances, any kind of Constitutional framework. We're sitting here with a Congress that from the McCain amendement, to the Detainee Treatment Act that I talked about, to what they're doing with national security, spying right now, has completely gone along, and as I said, been a step-stool, really, for this administration and now we're seeing courts do essentially the same thing.

I want to give one story and then end. But one story, we had a panel the other day that was incredibly moving to me. It was a panel that went, that was called "From 1973 to 2006, from New Orleans to Abu Ghraib: Torture." And it was three Black Panthers who'd been tortured in 1973 in New Orleans. They told the stories of their torture, terribly brutal torture, and then some of our attorneys had been to Guantanamo and had worked with our clients there, told the stories of torture in Guantanamo.

And when I started thinking about it, I started thinking what is really going on here? What is, what is this government doing with torture both here and abroad and why? And yes some people say, "Well you know it's a ticking time bomb, you have to get the information"; other people say it's vengeance. But you know when the Black Panthers were there with me, I began to think about when I was a child what the role of lynching was? Of course the role of lynching, there were many roles that it may have had , but one of them, one of them was clearly to tyrannize the Black community, to make it so that a Black man, a Black woman, a Black child could not walk down the street and hold their head up. So it was an instrument of terror and when people ask me, "Michael, why at Guantanamo, are they torturing people, if it's not getting them the information they need, why are they doing it?" I would say it's the same reason they were doing it to the Black Panthers in 1973, the same reason they still do it to people in the United States today, and the same reason they're doing it to people at Guantanamo: it's really to terrorize the community.

In this case Guantanamo, to terrorize the Muslim community, in particular, to say to them, "You oppose the United States, you have your dignity and we will take you to Guantanamo and we will torture you."

The last initiative I'll mention which, I'm sure, most have you have heard about, is the Center's book Articles of Impeachment Against George W. Bush.

[Applause begins and grows.]

And you know, at first when, this did not originate, I have to say, the Center can't take that much credit for this. Some people came to the Center and they say: "We want to write a book about impeachment." And we took our lawyers together and, in two or three weeks, we put this together. What's remarkable to me, I'm skeptical about this kind of stuff because obviously on some level here I am saying: "Forget about this Congress" and yet you got to get Congress to go ahead and impeach him." But I'm not looking at it that way.

I'm looking at in here I am in fighting a battle about Guantanamo and what they're doing is then they have Baghram rising up over here. So I'm saying you have to put all of this together and look at this administration whether it's the issues that I care about, all of whom I care about, or that I work on the most, or whether it's Katrina or the war in Iraq, and you have to say: "This is a criminal administrationand you have to get rid of it."

That's just the beginning. It's not the end. But it's certainly a first step. What's remarkable is that the program we did with Harper's was on C-Span and the number of calls all over the country, literally, hundreds of people all over the country who say: "Yes, go for it, we want to do this." And the polls reflect it, the polls reflect it. Something like fifty-percent of the people in this country now think that if George W. Bush, which is like a joke -- saying if, if he lied about the war, he ought to be impeached or, if he warrantlessly wiretapped people, he ought to be impeached.

So while in my life as a human rights lawyer, I've never seen a situation, so openly and notoriously, of a government taking power to torture, detain, imprison and spy on people in my life, I also think we're coming to a point where there's enough opposition in this country and enough fight-back where we can actually get somewhere. Thank you.

To repeat, Mr. Ratner's speech aired on the Monday, June 26th broadcast of WBAI's Law and Disorder. If you missed it and are able to listen online, you can utilize either the archives at
WBAI or at Law and Disorder. Think about the speech today and talk about it.