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Marjorie Cohn: The Least of These

The Least of These

By Marjorie Cohn
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Saturday 16 October 2004

You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone... Faith without deeds is dead.
- James 2:14-26

And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee? And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'
- Matthew 25:31-40

Much of the support George W. Bush enjoys stems from people of faith who identify with his religious principles. Toward the end of the third presidential debate, Bush said, ''I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That's what I believe. And that's one part of my foreign policy ... And so my principles that I make decisions on are a part of me. And religion is a part of me."

Sounds good. Freedom. Principles. Religion. Religious principles also guide John Kerry, who went to Catholic school and served as an altar boy. Like Bush, Kerry says "my faith affects everything that I do and choose."

But that is where the similarity ends. Kerry, quoting James, said, "Faith without works is dead." Whereas Bush stands on principle and religion, Kerry lives the word. "That's why I fight against poverty," Kerry added. "That's why I fight for equality and justice."

Equality and justice are two words that don't often appear in Bush's vocabulary - nor are they evident in his deeds. And his claim to value freedom is specious. Nowhere is this more evident than the way his administration treats the prisoners it has taken since September 11, 2001.

On Monday, Saudi American Yasser Esam Hamdi was "freed" and returned to his family after being held in solitary confinement as an "enemy combatant" for nearly three years by the U.S. government. Charges were never filed against him, and he was denied contact with an attorney for the first two years he was in custody. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that Hamdi is entitled to a hearing to contest the basis for his confinement. (See my editorial, Supreme Court: War No Blank Check for Bush.) It was only then the U.S. government began to negotiate conditions for his release. The Bush administration decided to free Hamdi rather than explain to a neutral decision maker why it was holding him. Hamdi's release amounted to a "blithe 'never mind'," according to the Washington Post.

In an interview with CNN from his parents' home in Saudi Arabia, Hamdi maintained his innocence and denied he was an "enemy combatant." He pleaded for the U.S government to release others being held without charges. "This thing drives human beings crazy," Hamdi said. When asked how it felt to be free, he replied, "It's something that I really can't describe at all. Just to be let down and to be given freedom - you really know what the meaning of freedom [is]." Hopefully, George W. Bush, champion of freedom, was watching CNN when Hamdi made that statement.

The same day the Supreme Court ruled on Yasser Hamdi's case, it also decided that hundreds of prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba have the right to challenge their imprisonment in U.S. courts. Yet three and a half months later, none of them has appeared in court. Sixty-eight have petitioned for access to federal court; yet very few have even seen an attorney. The government has given myriad excuses, while these men linger in legal limbo.

Many of them, and others in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been tortured by military and mercenary personnel working for the Bush administration. Months after the graphic photographs emerged, and numerous reports have documented abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, there still has been no meaningful investigation of those up the chain of command who might be responsible. Indeed, Donald Rumsfeld has privately told colleagues he is determined to promote Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who approved some of the harshest interrogation techniques, to four-star general.

Bush's lawyers advise him on how to avoid the requirements of the Geneva Convention, and devise creative strategies to circumvent prosecutions under the federal torture statute. Bush's Secretary of Defense calls rape, sodomy, and murder "abuse," not torture. And Bush's administration rewarded Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, overseer at Guantánamo, with a transfer to Abu Ghraib, where he transplanted his system of torture across the ocean.

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." Our compassionate-conservative commander-in-chief's favorite book is the Bible. He mouths the words but his deeds ring hollow. Sadly, Bush's Bible has no room for "the least of these."


Marjorie Cohn, is a contributing editor to t r u t h o u t, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, and the U.S. representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists.

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