The Senate approved legislation this week entitled the "Military Commissions Act of 2006" that must be viewed as a severe affront to anyone with Catholic sensibilities. The new law allows the president to identify anyone, including an American citizen, as an "enemy combatant"; to imprison them indefinitely; and to torture them if he chooses, without any oversight by any court. The law gives Mr. Bush wide-ranging power to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions, and strips the courts of any jurisdiction to challenge his interpretation. Jesus himself was the victim of this kind of treatment, and people of conscience must stand in opposition to it.
The term "enemy combatant" has now been defined down from someone "captured in battle" to anyone who has "purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States." As William Pitt has pointed out, "One dark-comedy aspect of the legislation is that senators or House members who publicly disagree with Bush, criticize him, or organize investigations into his dealings could be placed under the same designation. In effect, Congress just gave Bush the power to lock them up." The same could apply to anyone who writes a critical letter to a newspaper, protests in public, or advocates Mr. Bush's impeachment.
A very public confrontation between three Republican senators, who refused to allow Mr. Bush to use "waterboarding" on detainees, seemed to be clearly resolved in the final compromise. But many observers expected the White House to reassert in a "signing statement" Mr. Bush's right to do whatever he wants.
The Congress and the Administration essentially ignored calls by the US Bishops' Conference on September 15 "to reject any proposed legislation that would call into question America's commitment to Common Article 3" of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits "cruel treatment and torture" as well as "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."
Orlando Bishop Thomas Wenski, chairman of the USCCB International Policy Committee, wrote to Senators, "Prisoner mistreatment compromises human dignity. A respect for the dignity of every person, ally or enemy, must serve as the foundation of security, justice and peace. There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated for any reason." He went on to say, "In the face of this perilous climate, our nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that ‘desperate times call for desperate measures,' or ‘the end justifies the means.' The inherent justice of our cause and the perceived necessities involved in confronting terrorism must not lead to a weakening or disregard of U.S. or international law."
We support our bishops in opposition to any laws that allow our government to violate basic human dignity by depriving our enemies—and indeed even us—of the right to confront our accuser, to expect freedom from torture, and to appeal one's case beyond the authority of politicians whose own professional fortunes are served by appearing "tough on terrorism" at the expense of others. Christ asks us to stand with the victims of the world, but never by becoming victimizers ourselves.