When President Bush signed the Military Commission Act on the 17th of last month there went out across this land a “great yawn.”

That is according to Professor Jonathan Turley, nationally recognized legal scholar who has written extensively in areas ranging from constitutional law to legal theory. His expression “yawn” shows our apathy.

Professor Turley was referring to the national reaction (or lack of reaction) to the death of the writ of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus was dropped from the Act to satisfy President Bush.

What is habeas corpus? It is the right of an accused person to be told why he was arrested or charged in American courts. The accused is put away without anyone knowing why or where they are. Just like what the CIA has been doing and now can continue.

A writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not that person is imprisoned lawfully. Basically if you get tossed into prison you have a right to appear in court and ask why and be set free if there is no real reason–or at least you had that right before Mr. Bush signed it away.

When the habeas corpus section of the Military Commission was debated in the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said taking habeas corpus from our courts was a change this country cannot afford. That section passed the Senate by only three votes.

Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said the Military Commission Act makes it legal to suspend habeas corpus for the first time in U.S. history. “This is more than a step backwards,” he said. “This is a shocking failure of the Congress to step up to an executive power grab. If somebody is detained they have a right to say ‘Hey, it isn’t me. I’m not the guy.’ This is a frightening departure from our history, our traditions, and our rule of law that needs to be overturned. It’s a very dark hour.”

Keith Olbermann on his MSNBC program “Countdown” delivered an eloquent explanation of why George Bush’s signing of the Military Commission Act on Oct 17 is such a betrayal of American ideals and law.

Example: Without knowing it, you give to a charity that turns out to be supporting terrorist activities. The charity is caught and you are listed as a contributor. Innocent, yes, but under this new law there is nothing you can do about it.

And suppose a future president really takes advantage of this to get rid of his enemies Stalin-style. It is a dangerous precedent. It should bring more of a reaction than a yawn from citizens.

Habeas corpus goes all the way back to the Magna Carta in 1215. It has been the Anglo-American law long before George Washington was president.

Paul Halliday of the University of Virginia Department of History says the archives are full of thousands of writs, showing us just how rich our heritage is on the writ of habeas corpus. “It is a heritage of confident, careful judges allowed to do their work. It is a heritage by which we have sorted fear from reason and lawful imprisonment orders from unlawful ones, thereby protecting those liberties we take to be our inheritance from English law and which we revere as the heart of American ideals.”

The habeas corpus section will be brought before the Supreme Court eventually if our freedoms are to be sustained for our grandchildren.

Britt Towery is a retired missionary and former director of Asian Studies at Baylor University.

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