In May 2002, an American citizen named Jose Padilla was arrested on suspicion of terrorist ties to 9/11 and an al-Qaeda plot to detonate a ‘dirty bomb.’ After his arrest, the Bush Administration declared Padilla an ‘enemy combatant’ to avoid questions about the merit of the arrest when national security was the utmost priority. Padilla spent three-and-a-half years in solitary confinement without a single charge.
In all likelihood, Padilla should have been apprehended for questioning. However, while he may have looked favorably on al-Qaeda and had a criminal record, there was simply insufficient evidence to conclude that he was planning an attack on American soil. The reasons for questioning him are irrelevant when one focuses on what happened to him after he was seized.
Whipping up fear has been a well-honed trait of this administration. By portraying Padilla as a major threat when there was no substantial evidence that he was a danger, the administration effectively stigmatized him so those in power would not think twice about stripping him of every legal right. This speaks to the extent that national security concerns have trumped basic democratic rights. Even if Padilla was a serious threat, an American citizen should not be denied the basic rights that are supposedly guaranteed to every citizen.
In 2005, the Bush Administration charged Padilla with nothing related to the original reasons for his apprehension. He was not allowed to see a lawyer for two years, and the democratic principle of habeas corpus was violated in order to keep him locked up without charges. While this is inflammatory in its own right, it is even more troubling that Padilla was undeniably tortured during his detainment.
On Jan. 22, a judge finally sentenced Padilla to 17 years in prison. However, the judge remarked that Padilla’s case warranted a lighter sentence because he had endured ‘extreme environmental stresses’ and ‘harsh conditions.’ This was a way to evade calling his treatment what it was: torture. Padilla has been rendered psychologically unstable after sensory deprivation, stress positions and sensory shock treatments. Dr. Angela Hegarty, one of the psychiatric evaluators in the case, described Padilla after observing him for 22 hours: ‘There was something not right. He was a different man. And the second thing was his absolute state of terror, terror alternating with numbness, largely. It was as though the interrogators were in the room with us.’
It is questionable whether Padilla was fit to stand trial after torture had left him with impaired reasoning, paranoia, twitches and a deep fear of those around him. Another twist is that a key DVD of interrogation evidence was lost by the government, a sign of the weak justice offered by an administration that practically flaunts breaking constitutional and legal safeguards.
The administration went out of its way to hype up the case because it played into its strongest ability: instilling fear. Padilla was far from worthy of the fear tactics that the administration employed to justify his detention, torture and violation of civil liberties. Unfortunately, little attention was paid to his case, and as a result, little controversy erupted when an American citizen was tortured and jailed without charges.
Torture makes the prosecution of serious charges untenable. It is crucial that terror suspects are afforded trials and properly prosecuted under the law. Years from now, it is likely that no one will remember Padilla’s charges. Instead, they should remember that his rights were disregarded to keep him in prison. The only thing left to fear is this administration’s constant assault on civil liberties in the name of national security.
Jeanette Brown is a third-year English major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.