Civil Liberties Debate On Display In Oklahoma

Saturday, September 22nd 2007, 2:56 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ At the outbreak of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suspended fundamental civil liberties in an effort to preserve the union and protect public safety.

More than 140 years later, Congress is locked in debate over whether concerns about public safety following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks justify the suspension of civil liberties for suspected terrorists.

The erosion of civil liberties during wartime _ then and now _ is the focus of an exhibit on Lincoln's presidency at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum.

The exhibit, on loan from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, points to parallels between Lincoln's actions, particularly the suspension of habeas corpus in Maryland and parts of other northern states, with government action since the terror attacks that suspended habeas corpus for non-citizens who are declared an ``unlawful enemy combatant.''

It also challenges visitors to question how much of their personal freedom they are willing to sacrifice in the name of public safety as the government assumes more power to investigate suspected terrorists, such as searches of airline passengers and their baggage and increased surveillance of religious and political groups.

``I think the parallels are clear,'' said Professor J. Rufus Fears, a historian and David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma who has presented a lecture about Lincoln in conjunction with the exhibit.

``The survival of the country in a time when it is being undermined by enemies has to be paramount,'' Fears said. ``That's what Lincoln did and I think that's what President Bush has also done.''

In Lincoln's time as today, the suspension of civil liberties was heavily criticized by those in government as well as ordinary citizens, Fears said. Even members of Lincoln's own cabinet opposed some of the restrictions he imposed.

Similarly, today's Congress is attempting to undo legislation adopted last year and supported by the Bush administration that effectively eliminated habeas corpus for non-citizens, including legal resident aliens.

Under the law, Bush can declare a non-citizen an illegal enemy combatant and put the person into a system of military tribunals that give defendants only limited rights. Critics have said the ban on habeas corpus petitions could lead to the indefinite detention of individuals wrongfully suspected of terrorism.

Fears said that Lincoln, unlike Bush, was able to eventually obtain a consensus of support for his leadership.

``He appealed to all that is best in the American people,'' Fears said. The difference between the two presidents may be their ability to communicate, he said.

Lincoln ``was a good politician as well as a great statesman,'' Fears said. Bush's failing, he said, ``is just that he cannot communicate.''

``Lincoln was a very strong leader in a time of crisis. He had all the qualities of a statesman. He had a bedrock of principles. He had a moral compass.

``He set priorities and his priority in 1861 was for the union to survive,'' Fears said.

On April 27, 1861, 17 days after Confederate forces attacked the U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, a fundamental constitutional safeguard of individual freedom against arbitrary state action. Congress ratified his action two years later.

A Latin term meaning ``you have the body,'' a writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to court to determine whether that person is imprisoned lawfully and whether he should be released from custody.

Lincoln's action allowed the government to imprison dissenters without a trial following riots, local militia action and other threats.

Citizens were held without court review for suspected sabotage and smuggling and others were arrested for speaking out against the war, denouncing the nation's first draft and publishing articles critical of the government.

The 2,500-square-foot exhibit explores the civil liberties crisis during the Civil War as well as the two other major constitutional challenges Lincoln faced - slavery and secession.

The exhibit focuses on Lincoln's justification for suspending habeas corpus and his reluctance to curb constitutional freedoms.

``Ours is a case of rebellion,'' Lincoln states in a letter to businessman and politician Erastus Corning in which he cites the constitutional provision allowing habeas corpus to be suspended ``in cases of rebellion or invasion'' when ``the public safety may require it.''

``This is precisely our present case - a case of rebellion, wherein the public safety does require the suspension,'' Lincoln states.

``Yet, thoroughly imbued with a reverence for the guaranteed rights of individuals, I was slow to adopt the strong measures, which by degrees I have been forced to regard as being within the exceptions of the Constitution, and as indispensable to the public safety.''

Not until 1996, when Congress adopted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in response to the Oklahoma City bombing, were limits again placed on habeas corpus.

The act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, gave prisoners one year following their conviction to seek the writ and absolutely barred second or successive petitions. It also limited the power of federal judges to grant relief.

``I think the ends of justice are served,'' said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who encouraged Congress to pass the legislation. ``I don't think anyone can point to a case where a legitimate claim has not been able to reach the courts.''

Supporters said it would bring finality to death penalty cases and reduce what many bombing survivors and members of victims' families feared might be years of legal appeals. The April 19, 1995, bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building killed 168 people and injured hundreds more.

``That's what we were trying to solve in the act,'' Edmondson said. ``There's no reason why we have to re-litigate the same issues over and over and over again.''

Still, Edmondson said he believes the government must be careful not to go too far when trying to balance public safety and civil liberties.

``I just think we need to be cautious not to give away the very freedoms we're trying to protect,'' Edmondson said.

The Lincoln exhibit will remain on display through Dec. 15. It will open in January at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.