250 Legal Scholars Condemn Obama’s Treatment of Bradley Manning

The Obama administration has detained the alleged Wikileaks whistleblower under torturous conditions—for almost a year, he has been subjected to solitary confinement in a windowless 6×12 cell for 23 hours a day, under constant surveillance, prevented from exercising, lacking a pillow or sheets. For the remaining hour every day, he is allowed to walk in circles in a somewhat larger cell, still without any human company. Every five minutes he is asked, “Are you OK?” and must answer yes. Now he is being forced to sleep naked. Put together, his treatment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment without trial, protest 250 legal scholars, including preemenent liberal law professor Laurence Tribe, a man who taught Obama constitutional law, supported his 2008 campaign, and until recently worked as a Justice Department legal adviser. The letter draws scathing conclusions about his treatment, as well as about Obama’s personal culpability in this mockery of justice:

The administration has provided no evidence that Manning’s treatment reflects a concern for his own safety or that of other inmates. Unless and until it does so, there is only one reasonable inference: this pattern of degrading treatment aims either to deter future whistleblowers, or to force Manning to implicate Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in a conspiracy, or both. . . .

President Obama was once a professor of constitutional law, and entered the national stage as an eloquent moral leader. The question now, however, is whether his conduct as commander in chief meets fundamental standards of decency. He should not merely assert that Manning’s confinement is “appropriate and meet[s] our basic standards,” as he did recently. He should require the Pentagon publicly to document the grounds for its extraordinary actions—and immediately end those that cannot withstand the light of day.

I’m glad to see that unlike many of his supporters, the liberal law community has been critical of Obama for his war on terror and detention policies, indicating that they are not purely partisan. And yet, this speaks to the political dilemma involved. For if Obama, a left-liberal who himself taught law at the University of Chicago (as he as a candidate put it, “I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president I actually respect the Constitution”), rises to the presidency in an election so widely seen as a popular repudiation of the Bush-McCain approach to civil liberties and the rule of law—if a guy is given the top gig in the White House largely because he promises to restore the Bill of Rights and Geneva Conventions and says encouraging things like, “There is no reason we cannot fight terrorism while maintaining our civil liberties”—and the state of such liberties seems to have remained constant or even worsened once he takes the throne, what then?

Despite all the rhetoric of both parties, civil liberties is just another example that they are virtually identical on the most important components of policy. The Democrats claim to be less warmongering and pro-police powers, and the Republicans encourage this misconception by accusing their opponents of being weak. The Republicans, meanwhile, claim to be for smaller government involvement in the economy and low taxes, and the Democrats encourage this confusion by accusing their opponents of wanting to eliminate welfare and leave everyone to fend for themselves in the soulless and predatory free market. In truth, the Republicans and Democrats, at least once in power, invariably agree with each other that we must have detention without trial; torturous treatment of prisoners; kangaroo courts; warrantless surveillance; presidentially directed executions without due process of accused terrorists abroad including American civilians; presidential wars without Congressional ascent, a clear mission or a remote connection to defending Americans on U.S. soil; the largest military on earth with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and bases in most of the world’s countries; the TSA; tightening border controls; the never-ending drug war; gun controls; a growing police presence characterized by ever more invasive and dangerous practices, equipment and agents; a growing prison system; massive deficit spending; a central bank and national directing of large swaths of the economy; federal control over education, to say nothing of public schools that become more authoritarian every year; gigantic federal subsidies for health care for the poor and elderly; Social Security; a multi-trillion-dollar budget that necessitates an oppressive tax structure; licensing in virtually every industry; significant and burdensome national environmental and labor regulations; civil rights laws that restrict private property rights; federal administration of energy, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, housing programs, telecommunications and parks; governmental ownership and maintenance of roads; bailouts of banks, auto companies and other businesses; “disaster relief” that involves martial law powers claimed by federal agents; an ever more absurdist and draconian web of legislative and regulatory copyright and patent law. Basically, combine everything the two parties considered to have not been non-essential (the stuff that would have continued apace even with a government “shutdown”) and add it to everything the two parties DO consider non-essential (that is, the stuff everyone loves and so Americans can be expected to protest when it is taken away) and you have everything that everyone in Washington, minus a few strange birds like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, agree on: The whole of the federal leviathan, its police state, empire, and soft socialism at home.

I would stop to pay attention to any president who fundamentally challenged any two or three of the items from my list above. For better or worse, the libertarian has almost no reason to care who wins the presidency or power in Congress. We libertarians are often accused of being far too demanding and making the perfect the enemy of the good. Well, I am a purist in a sense, but I sure wouldn’t mind seeing one or two out of the hundred government programs that I hate come to end. It never happens, however, which seems to indicate that it’s not the libertarians who keep getting what they want.

If Bush taught us once and for all that there is no hope even for a slightly small increase of government growth under Republicans, Obama is teaching us once and for all that civil liberties and peace are no better secured under Democrats.

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