By Siahyonkron Nyanseor

February 4, 2003

At 7:35 a.m., Sunday, December 7, 1941, six years before I was born, according to history, the USS Arizona was attacked and sunk by Japan at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo carried out the surprise attack that sunk USS Arizona. Japan was identified as the enemy, along with its Axis allies Germany and Italy.

The surprise attack on U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and military airfields on Oahu, left 2,402 people dead, and 1,178 wounded. The attack sunk three battleships, one capsized and another seriously damaged, three light cruisers, three destroyers and other vessels sunk and 169 planes destroyed.

These incidents plunged the United States into World War II, fulfilling Yamamoto’s warning of “awakened a sleeping giant.” However, before the war ended on September 2, 1945, more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were placed in detention camps for the duration of the war. Military tribunals tried, convicted and executed eight German saboteurs.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on American soil (New York and Washington, D.C.) that left 3,329 people dead (3,096 – World Trade Center, 189 – Pentagon and 44 – Pennsylvania), destroyed the 110-story twin towers at the World Trade Center and caused severe damage to the Pentagon, brings back memories of Pearl Harbor. The perpetrators are identified as Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network and the Taliban government of Afghanistan that sheltered them.

In order to avoid similar mistakes that were made during World War II, America needs to draw from that experience. During that war America singled out Japanese-Americans, and the same is about to be repeated. Noncitizens have been questioned and detained for prolonged periods, and President Bush has authorized open-ended use of military tribunals to try suspects.

Regarding the above, Syndicated Columnist and Economist Thomas Sowell wrote an opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution titled: Despite critics’ claims, peace isn’t an option. He argues:

“…The most irresponsible signs of unreality among people in high places are coming from the Senate Judiciary Committee, where its chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), is carrying on his own political jihad against Attorney General John Ashcroft.

“The Justice Department is holding hundreds of suspected terrorists and President Bush wants to hold military tribunals for foreign terrorists, instead of putting them into the American criminal justice system. Leahy is leading the charge of those opposed to these policies.

“Does it occur to those who are making so much noise about the detention of suspected terrorists that the fact there has been no follow-up terrorism to compare with September 11 may have something to do with the fact that so many terrorist suspects are behind bars? Or are liberals still not prepared to admit that keeping some people locked up is one way to reduce dangers to society?

“…There is no point in the critics of military tribunals wrapping themselves in the Constitution, which deals with the rights of American citizens. Nobody is talking about trying American civilians in military court.”

In his attempt to promote the conservative cause, Mr. Sowell missed the point Sen. Leahy and those who advocate for the Bush Administration to use caution. And to say that U.S. Constitution deals with the rights of only American citizens is further from the truth. The U.S. Constitution also protects noncitizens. That’s the beauty of it!

Joining Mr. Sowell’s chorus is former governor of Georgia and now Senator Zell Miller who wrote an article title: Tribunals’ critics will pay in the next election.  The article reads:

“The howls of protest over the administration’s efforts to treat terrorists like the war criminals they are is mind-boggling. The critics are crying foul at the mere mention of bringing suspected terrorists to justice in military tribunals. This obsession with protecting the rights terrorists is naïve and wrongheaded. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, just wait – voters will say it loud and clear in next year’s elections.”

Miller went on to say:

“…President Bush is proposing military tribunals only for noncitizens, and he is absolutely right to do so. …The critics say Attorney General John Ashcroft is shredding the Constitution. They’ve wrongly turned Ashcroft into the enemy while our true enemy is still at large.

“It’s crazy. Ashcroft is right to use military tribunals for terrorists. He is right to detain those suspected of helping the terrorists,” the Senator lamented.

Thomas Sowell, Joseph Perkins and Sen. Miller have forgotten that what makes America the great nation that she is – is her “due process,” “freedom of movement” and “free speech” that the Constitution provides for all – including noncitizens. Those who are against trial by military tribunals, do so to carry on America’s cherished tradition, and not as their critics implied.

The framers of the Constitution saw to it that the system of “checks and balances” should exist between the three branches of the government. This was based on their experience of the “unlimited power” the King of England exercised at that time. To do so now, is to violate the sacred covenant provided by those honorable men.

In this regard, I find myself agreeing with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and both William Safire of the New York Times and Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald, who called for restraints.

According to Leonard Pitts:

“…It was because the government abused the trust we gave it. It lied about Watergate, lied about Vietnam, lied about the domestic threat of communism. And did so, not to further the national interest, but to promote the careers and protect the backsides of a series of slimy men. The government lied so prolifically that mistrusting it became a self-defensive reflex. We learned to question everything and believe nothing.”

William Safire on the other hand, responded with an article titled: Questioning tribunals not negativism, just common sense:

“…Attorney General John Ashcroft lashed out at all who dare to uphold our bedrock rule of law as ‘voice of negativism.’ (A nattering nabob, Moi?)

“…Here’s why we are not: The sudden seizure of power by the executive branch, bypassing all constitutional checks and balances, is beginning to be recognized by cooler heads in the White House, Defense Department and CIA as more than a bit excessive.

“Not that they’ll ever admit it publicly. Bush will stick to his shaky line that civil courts cannot be trusted to protect military secrets and, as fearful Orrin Hatch assures him, jurors will be too sacred to serve. But his order asserting his power to set up drumhead courts strikes some of his advisers, on sober second thought, as counterproductive.”

As blacks, our experience with kangaroo courts and the lynch-mob justice system serve as constant reminder what can be done to a select group of people if we fail to uphold what is considered the “bedrock” of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “one is innocent, until proven guilty,” and those provisions that make the United States a country, where citizens and noncitizens’ rights are protected under the law.

This effort to mete out “quick justice” by setting aside the Constitution and ignoring the basic civil liberties of individuals, would not have created an ire where this to occur in some other country other than the United States. By instituting secret military tribunals, this would make it next to impossible for the United States to protest on said trials abroad.

Finally, as a champion of the rule of law and the citadel of modern democracy, America cannot afford to set such example that would send negative signals and mixed messages to a world still rife with tyrants and dictators, who would take their cue and find easy justification for their continued misrule and total disregard for the rule of law.

2003: From Siahyonkron Nyanseor’s Archive