Monday, October 16, 2006

Curious perspectives from inside the beltway

Following are excerpts from a story by R. Jeffrey Smith in the Oct. 16 Washington Post about two unsuccessful Judiciary Committee amendments to Bush's bill which stripped legal rights from people whom the President declares to be "enemy combatants." The point of Smith's article is that one of the amendments, which he weirdly designates as the "extreme" one--which retained habeas corpus--never stood a chance of passage, whereas the other amendment, being "less extreme" (i.e. it severely curtailed habeas corpus, but did not abolish it outright) might have fared better. He offers little or no proof of this contention other than some vague hearsay. In any case, the amendment which he calls "extreme," that retained habeas corpus as we have known it, was the one that came to the full Senate, and it failed.

But the point of view implicit in the piece really seemed peculiar to me. The whole article was a considerably after-the-fact story postulated on the hypothetical votes of Republican senators who--acccording to Smith's imaginary hindsight--share Smith's own implicit view that the true defenders of civil liberties are those who would destroy the village of our freedoms in order to save it, perhaps leaving a grass hut or two still standing. Quite an odd notion, I think, made even odder by Smith's reversal of the normal meanings of the word "extreme."

I guess you could say his choice of terminology was tendentious, to say the least. Here are some highlights. (Emphasis supplied.)
The news reached Democrats working on the military commissions bill in the Senate cloakroom the morning of Sept. 27. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a sponsor of two amendments giving detainees a right to challenge their detention or treatment in federal court, had decided to bring the more extreme amendment to a vote...
On the detainee bill, Frist had make clear his desire to ensure that no amendment passed, spokeswoman Amy Call said. She said “we were worried about both” of Specter’s amendments. The more extreme version would have deleted the bill’s suspension of habeas corpus rights. The less extreme alternative, which Specter co-sponsored with Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Gordon Smith (R.-N.H.), would have allowed detainees to file a single habeas corpus petition after a year of detention.

So I decided to email Smith about this.

My email:
"Since when is preserving the right of habeas corpus 'extreme?'"

Smith's reply:
"there's nothing extreme about it. it's solely a relative term -- ie compared to the other amendment."

So I wrote back:
"Interesting. Let's say you have a physical object in front of you--say,
a yardstick. Which is the extreme end? Presumably, the end away from
you. Equally relatively, let's say you have two positions on habeas
corpus, abolish it or preserve it. Which is the extreme position?
Presumably, the one opposite your own."

To which he replied:

"let's try another example. you have two amendments in front of you: one would remove any reference to habeas corpus from a bill. another would leave language allowing one habeas petition after one year of incarceration. which is more extreme in political terms?
i repeat: it's solely a relative term -- ie compared to the other amendment."

Here ends the exchange.

I confess myself puzzled by Smith's answers. It would normally be thought disingenuous to call the lesser of two abridgments of our freedom the greater in its extremism. And despite his appeal to the relative in the switching the negative and positive poles of the issue, in his examples, it remains a conundrum in my mind. The only explanation for the wrong-end-of-the-telescope perspective here, that I can come up with, is that Smith sincerely believes that preserving habeas corpus is extreme in the context of an alternative that would partially abolish it--in other words, that Smith is a Republican or has, through inside-the-beltway osmosis, learned to think like one; or that he is profoundly illogical. And perhaps those positions are not all that far from one another.

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