The Night You Became Indefinitely Detainable


Despite President Obama's claim that his administration won't use the power he signed into law, no president deserves the power to snatch people out of our society at will, Griffen says. (Photo: Pete Souza/White House)
On New Year's Eve 2011, while you and I were anticipating the end of the year, President Barack Obama signed a law that makes U.S. citizens subject to indefinite detention by military authorities on suspicion of being terrorists.

The National Defense Authorization Act principally deals with funding the Defense Department.

But the measure enacted by Congress and submitted to Obama contains provisions that allow the executive branch (meaning the president) to determine whether to order a U.S. citizen detained indefinitely by military authorities on suspicion of being a terrorist.

If you think that smacks of tyranny, you're right.

If you think Obama is smart enough to know better than to sign such a measure, you're right.

If you hoped Obama would demonstrate the fortitude to carry out his publicized threat to veto the legislation if this offensive provision wasn't removed, you're badly disappointed.

Count me among the badly disappointed people who know tyranny when we see it.

Count me among the people who take no consolation in Obama's signing statement that his administration won't use the power he signed into law.

This is the kind of foolishness that produced the 1944 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States that upheld the forced detention of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry based on xenophobic and racist hysteria after Pearl Harbor.

The Korematsu decision is generally considered one of the low points of Supreme Court jurisprudence.

It ranks alongside the decisions in Dred Scott v. Sandford (deciding in 1856 that black people had no legal rights white people were obliged to respect) and Plessy v. Ferguson (the 1896 decision that upheld Jim Crow seating on rail transportation that validated racial segregation for the next half century until it was overturned in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education).

I hoped that Obama, a former constitutional law professor, wouldn't align his administration with the forces of tyranny.

I hoped he would understand the obvious danger to freedom posed by legalizing indefinite detention of any person based on mere suspicion.

I hoped he would resist the temptation to snatch people from their homes, families, jobs and communities and to deny them access to the civil courts.

And I hoped that he was principled enough to admit that the issue wasn't whether his administration would ever sink to such a deplorable state as to resort to such conduct.

Despite Obama's claim that his administration won't use the power he signed into law, no president deserves the power to snatch people out of our society at will.

No president should be allowed to order citizens or anyone else held indefinitely without an independent and objective judicial finding that they've done something unlawful.

Obama's action takes on more significance when considered from the perspective of the upcoming holiday honoring the birth of Martin Luther King Jr.

King was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the direction of J. Edgar Hoover based on Hoover's suspicion that King was a communist.

The law Obama signed on New Year's Eve now allows dissident voices, such as King's, to be indefinitely detained on suspicion of terrorism.

Several years ago while visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum in Alabama, I found a poster of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

I admired the photograph of that man who escaped slavery, became literate, eventually purchased his mother's freedom and stirred the fires of freedom by his great intellect and persuasive oratorical powers.

But I purchased the poster because it bears the following Douglass quotation: "There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own constitution."

Sadly, Obama doesn't have that much loyalty, honor and patriotism.

Now it remains to be seen whether you and I have it. Will goodwill followers of Jesus find a way to challenge the oppressive new powers that Obama claims he never wanted and won't ever exercise but signed into law?

Will pastors find enough loyalty to righteousness and justice in our spirits to denounce this oppression in the spirit of Amos, Micah, Hosea, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Jesus?

Or will we imitate the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan lesson as well as Obama and look the other way? God, help us recognize "a good fight," and then strengthen us to fight well.

Wendell L. Griffen is pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., and on the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics. His sermon manuscripts appear on EthicsDaily.com.

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Tags: Barack Obama, Detention, Terrorism, Wendell Griffen


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