Ratner’s Work Connects Racial Justice and Civil Liberties

By Tram Nguyen Dec 05, 2007

It may be baffling to some people why the American public hasn’t become outraged by the fact that our government conducts torture in our name, even in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the transformation of once-obscure terms like "rendition" and "waterboarding" into the vernacular of popular culture. Is it because many of us have been kept in the dark by a combination of the government’s secrecy and the media’s negligence? Or is it because we don’t really know the extent of what’s happening, other than that it’s something that has to be done to some bad guys, over there somewhere called Guantanamo? Or maybe, we’ve already heard enough and we just don’t want to know or care. Michael Ratner has a blunt assessment of why. "I think people in the U.S. think these detainees are dead guilty and the heck with them if they get tortured. I think some people think this is going to make us a little safer to have people abused and kept like this," he told Mother Jones in a 2005 interview. Ratner has been on the front lines challenging the Bush Administration’s extralegal war on terror since virtually the moment it began shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. When President Bush moved within a month after the tragedy to declare a military order allowing indefinite detention of any noncitizen deemed a security threat by his administration, Ratner knew right away what the real danger was. He told his colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights they’d be representing the first case possible from Guantanamo Bay, and it didn’t matter who these guys were or how unsavory they might be. "The idea that you can simply imprison someone indefinitely without a trial, without any access to attorneys, incommunicado in a place outside the law…should be anathema to all of us. That’s the beginning of the end of rule of law in the United States." This commitment is being honored this month with the Puffin/Nation Prize, an annual award recognizing a distinctive, courageous, imaginative and socially responsible work of significance. The "Creative Citizenship" award comes as Ratner’s team returns to the supreme court to argue that detainees must have the Constitutional right to know why they’ve been locked away. This question of the rule of law is one of the powerful and contradictory ways where the war on terror intersects with the immigration debate. It is where the fates of several hundred "enemy combatants" held off-shore meet those of millions of undocumented immigrants and legal residents vulnerable to detention and deportation here in the U.S. It is the flipside between the core message of the anti-immigrant campaign—"what part of illegal don’t you understand?"—and the breathtaking unconstitutionality of the Administration’s activities. But the real ramifications of stretching the bounds of government policy and practice toward noncitizens have not been conveyed so that the majority of Americans understand what’s at stake. Even now, civil liberties can often be attacked as an elite liberal concern. In this ugly age of terror, who cares if the government may be taking some shortcuts to defend us? Perhaps the spotlight on the average victim of Big Brother as a white citizen who’s angry about his library books being monitored or complains about airport searches has struck many people as overblown and self-indulgent. Perhaps the effort to get average, white citizens to care by positing that, "the government can do something bad to you too" has fallen on deaf ears because most people detect the false note in that message. Between Big Brother and Osama bin Laden, they’re more afraid of the latter right now. If Americans did understand the stakes, we’d realize that the civil liberties debate isn’t only about the right to privacy and dissent and other good things citizens enjoy, but the integrity of the Constitution and the human rights of all persons under its jurisdiction. We’d also see that the immigration debate is not only about how to provide a legal path for migrant workers and a labor supply for the U.S. economy, but also about the same core concern—the integrity of the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law for all "persons," not just citizens, and their human and civil rights in interacting with the immigration enforcement system that holds sway over nearly every aspect of their lives. The work of Michael Ratner and other civil libertarians is not separate from the struggle of millions of immigrants who marched just a year ago in cities across the country. We need a broader frame for a debate about rights and liberties that encompasses this reality, because in the age of globalized war on terror and migration, there are no such borders between these issues. In the meantime, we can start by making the connections for ourselves between movements for racial justice and immigrant rights, and the protection of civil liberties. What immigrants and communities of color bring to the table are the knowledge and experiences of being the targets of domestic militarization. Civil libertarians bring the litigation battle that so far has acted as the only check on the Administration’s use of expanded executive power and military law. What may then provide a foundation for building the broader consensus to begin redeeming our democracy would be the conviction that we the people must be accountable for what happens to the most vulnerable among us, for that is the only way to understand and change what is wrong about the system for us all.