George Will, breaking from those on the right clamoring to categorize Dzhokhar Tsarneav, an American citizen, as an "enemy combatant" whose constitutional rights should be suspended, has written a scathing piece in The Washington Post.
The occasion for his piece is a current effort underway to have one of our nation's most infamous and shameful Supreme Court decisions officially repudiated:
Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the president’s wartime power to sweep Americans of disfavored racial groups into concentration camps, elicited a 1988 congressional apology. Now Peter Irons, founder of the Earl Warren Bill of Rights Project at the University of California at San Diego, is campaigning for a Supreme Court “repudiation” of the Korematsu decision and other Japanese internment rulings. Such repudiation, if it occurred, would be unprecedented.Will's piece is largely an informative and illuminating look at the history behind this decision and Irons' efforts to have it officially repudiated.
However, the larger purpose of Will's essay, which becomes clear at the end, is to warn against allowing difficult circumstances, such as terrorism, to prompt the erosion of those constitutional protections upon which our country is founded:
The Korematsu decision reflected perennial dangers: panic and excessive deference, judicial and other, to presidents or others who would suspend constitutional protections in the name of wartime exigencies.Read narrowly, Will's essay is an argument against treating terrorism as war, and instead as a law-enforcement problem, as he did in 2006.
It is less important that the decision be repudiated than that it be remembered. Especially by those currently clamoring, since Boston, for a U.S. citizen — arrested in America and concerning whom there is no evidence of a connection with al-Qaeda, the Taliban or other terror network — to be detained by the military as an “enemy combatant.” The Korematsu case is a reminder that waiving constitutional rights is rarely necessary and rarely ends well.
Read more broadly, it's an oppositional move against Islamophobic streams in our country moving to curb constitutional protections because of a fear of a group. Last time: Japanese. This time: Muslims.
Now, Will is a figure with whom I regularly disagree, as any card-carrying progressive should. However, here, he is spot on, in my view.
The "war on terror" – if it erodes those freedoms we hold dear – will have no chance of ending well. For anyone involved.