Preventive Detention: The Usual Suspects

By Michelle Chen May 21, 2009

President Obama’s speech at the National Archives today resonated with comforting rhetoric about constitutional principles and the careful balance between national security and transparency. But for human rights activists, Obama’s words contained troubling echoes of the last administration. He pushed for closing Guantanamo but advocated establishing a separate commissions as an end-run around US courts. He suggested a nebulous category of terrorism detainees who supposedly cannot be tried but still pose a national security threat and should therefore be detained "preventively". It’s the war on terror repackaged, says Glenn Greenwald at Salon:

Even if it’s due to perceived political necessity, the more Obama embraces core Bush terrorism policies and assumptions — we’re fighting a "war on terror"; Presidents have the power to indefinitely and "preventatively" imprison people with no charges; we can create new due-process-abridging tribunals when it suits us; the "Battlefield" is everywhere; we should conceal evidence when it will make us look bad — the more those premises are transformed from right-wing dogma into the prongs of bipartisan consensus, no longer just advocated by Bush followers but by many Obama defenders as well. The fact that it’s all wrapped up in eloquent rhetoric about the rule of law, our Constitution and our "timeless values" — and the fact that his understanding of those values is more evident than his predecessor’s — only heightens the concern.

Obama may be recycling policies from the last eight years, but actually, the Bush administration was rather unoriginal. The concept of the preventive detention can be traced all the way back to the Japanese internment camps of World War II and the Palmer Raids of 1919-1921. Like the so-called war on terror, those initiatives both involved massive round-ups of people on the basis of immigration or ethnic status, targeted supposed political subversives, and over time, became known as blights on the country’s human rights record. In an ambivalent examination of preventive detention in the Boston Review, David Cole pointed out the moral dilemmas of paranoia-driven dragnets:

In each instance, the United States responded to a violent attack by rounding up the usual suspects, based not on concrete evidence of involvement in the violence, but on the basis of much broader “profiles”—Communist Party membership, Japanese ancestry, or Arab or Muslim identity. None of those locked up in the Palmer Raids was found to have engaged in the bombings that prompted the raids. None of the Japanese or Japanese-American internees was a spy or saboteur. And none of the more than 5,000 foreign nationals jailed in anti-terrorism preventive detention measures in the first two years after 9/11 stands convicted of a terrorist offense.

The terrorist “profile” has crept into America’s everyday political discourse, even amid international outrage over torture and draconian detention policies. We see it in today’s headlines: the jihadist label slapped on the ragtag group at the center of this week’s sensational alleged terror plot. The presumption of guilt surrounding allegations of “recidivism” among former Gitmo detainees. Meanwhile, lawmakers robotically stoke fears about scary former detainees living in the midst of law-abiding Americans. What else would we expect in the effort to keep America “safe”? In the never-ending pursuit of security, the public’s perception of “the enemy” continues its relentless expansion. Image: Camp X-ray (via Wikimedia)