Humanists Ask: Why Does Congress Hate Our Freedoms?

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - When Congress passed legislation giving President Bush the authority to detain, interrogate and try terrorism detainees before military commissions, the House and Senate "took the moral low road in the so-called war on terror," a group of humanists charged Friday.

"While there are those in the world who, as Bush has declared, 'hate our freedoms,' we can't counter their influence by imitating them," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association (AHA). "So why have our legislative leaders, by their votes, suggested that we who they represent, hate those same freedoms ourselves?"

"Expanding the reach and influence of American values -- those principles that underlie our Bill of Rights -- is a truly noble ideal that is only undermined by the hypocrisy Congress has just displayed," Speckhardt added.

"We have no moral claim to our inalienable human rights if we don't believe everyone is entitled to them regardless of their nationality, philosophy or criminality," he noted.

The "Military Commissions Act of 2006" -- which was passed by the Senate on Thursday and approved by the House Friday -- allows the executive branch of the federal government to try "alien unlawful enemy combatants" under a lower standard of justice than would be applied to U.S. citizens, the humanists claimed in a news release.

The measure also tampers with other basic human rights, the group charged. It makes certain types of coerced evidence admissible, prohibits detainees from invoking the Geneva Conventions as the source of their rights and denies access to the U.S. court system for detainee habeas corpus appeals.

In addition, the law declines to treat as crimes "outrages upon personal dignity, particularly humiliating and degrading treatment," which are banned under international law.

Also critical of the measure was Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, who said his organization was "profoundly disappointed" with the legislation because it "adds more confusion where illumination was sought."

"Many have looked to the United States, as the world's sole superpower, to set the standard for human rights," Cox said. "However, Congress has sent the wrong message by refusing to affirm basic, universal standards recognized under human rights and humanitarian law."

Cox noted that the legislation defines an "unlawful enemy combatant" as anyone determined by the U.S. government to have engaged in hostilities, to have "purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents" or anyone deemed as such by a tribunal established by the president or secretary of defense.

This characterization allows the U.S. government to use a law of war rationale in place of a human rights framework to detain people -- on or off a battlefield -- indefinitely without charge or access to judicial review, he said.

"The administration and Congress put the American people through a maze that led to a faulty policy and, in the process, lost a little more of its standing with the global community and the American public," Cox added.

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, the measure followed a Supreme Court decision in June that said the president could set up such commissions -- but only if Congress explicitly authorized them.

When the Senate approved the measure on Thursday, President Bush issued a statement applauding Congress "for passing legislation that will provide our men and women in uniform with the necessary resources to protect our country and win the War on Terror."

"As our troops risk their lives to fight terrorism, this bill will ensure they are prepared to defeat today's enemies and address tomorrow's threats," Bush added. "I look forward to signing this bill into law."

Several GOP members of Congress praised the new law as necessary to keep America safe from terrorists.

"This legislation will give the president the tools he needs to protect American lives without compromising our core democratic values," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said.

"The war against terror has been given incalculable support thanks to the enactment of legislation to clarify America's authority to hold and try enemy terrorists," House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) noted.

However, Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, issued a news release stating that the battle over the measure is not over yet.

The new law "was written by the president and gives the president expansive power to detain without judicial oversight," Warren said. "We will challenge it" in court.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the Los Angeles Times that federal judges should not interfere with the military's handling of prisoners.

"I don't believe judges should be making military decisions in a time of war," Graham said. "To substitute a judge for the military in a time of war on something as basic as who our enemy is, is not only not necessary under the Constitution, it impedes the war effort."

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