The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

May 21, 2012

Other Views: When is a right a right?

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were admirably clear, or so they and we thought, when they wrote in the Fifth Amendment that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”

Not that the framers didn’t specify that the person had to be a U.S. citizen. And by “due process” they meant the right to be formally charged, to challenge those charges before a judge and to have defense counsel present.

The framers thought that right important enough that in the 14th Amendment they reiterated that this protection also applied to the states, which also could not “deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”

Clear enough? Perhaps not.

The U.S. House on Friday affirmed the government’s power to detain indefinitely in military custody suspected terrorists without charge or trial. All that is required is suspicion.

Note that this provision does away with the presumption of innocence, and if the detainee is deemed an “illegal combatant,” the prisoner is 90 percent of the way toward being declared guilty without the technicality of a trial.

A coalition of Democrats and tea party-movement Republicans, skeptical about the ever-increasing power of a central government, failed to roll back that power, their amendment losing by the dismaying margin of 238-182.

The House reaffirmed a provision in a defense bill that President Barack Obama signed on Dec. 31. In a signing statement, Obama wrote, “My administration will not authorize indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens. Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation.”

That’s a commendable notion and one we hope he sticks to, but a right is not truly a right when someone else gets to decide when and whether that right should apply.

The Associated Press noted, “In a face-saving move, the House voted 243-173 Friday for an amendment that reaffirms Americans’ constitutional rights.”

It says something about our current crop of lawmakers that 173 of them would vote “no” on the Bill of Rights. Maybe for the past 220 or so years, the Constitution wasn’t as clear as we thought it was.

Scripps Howard News Service

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