Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Martin Luther King & Dred Scott

While Barack and Hillary go at it over who should get credit for the civil rights advances of 40 years ago, they both waffle about the key civil rights issue of today: the treatment of defenseless prisoners by agents of the United States government.

In a ruling worthy of Justice Taney’s 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case that reaffirmed the chattel status of ‘persons descended from black Africans,’ the Bushite-pere judge Karen Lecraft Henderson celebrated King’s birthday last week in a peculiar way. She declared that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not apply to detainees at the Guantánamo prison camp because they do not belong to the category of ‘persons.’

The D.C. Court of Appeals ruling also restated approvingly a phrase from the district court decision that should be chiseled into the Washington Monument as a testament to the Bush years: “Torture is a foreseeable consequence of the military’s detention of suspected enemy combatants.”

Moral outrage bubbles forth over things tucked away safely in the past. We get endless parsing of whether Clinton’s statement was an attempt to downgrade King’s role or whether Obama supporters are appealing to the civil rights-era hero to get an edge in the South Carolina primary.

But neither camp shoulders the tougher chore of confronting those who today are turning people into animals, starting with the armed forces of the United States and their intellectual abettors like Judge Henderson—of South Carolina.

Obama criticizes the handling of detainees at Guantánamo but mostly because the system is ‘sloppy’ and ineffective. He supported the renewed Patriot Act because it made ‘important revisions that reflected our experience about what worked and what didn’t work’—whether or not those affected by it managed to become ‘persons.’

Clinton wouldn’t be caught dead defending the human rights of unpopular foreigners, especially on a sensitive defense issue. For example, at the Las Vegas debate she was asked, ‘What is more important: human rights or national security?’

Not one to dither in the face of a chance to put on the tough-guy act, Clinton dove headfirst for the latter: ‘The first obligation of the president of the U.S. is to protect and defend the U.S.’

She quickly covered herself by a nod to ‘other interests’—which she significantly did not name, then dashed after the Anti-terrorist of the Year award in the rest of her reply.

These aren’t folks who deserve to be telling us about what Martin Luther King did on the margins of our society, pilloried by racists and harassed by the FBI, or about who deserves to inherit his mantle.

[Update: Reprinted by The Huffington Post Jan 15, 2008]

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