Constitution eroded by 9/11 attacks, lawyer says
Attorney Buz Eisenberg speaks to a crowd at the Charlemont Federated Church on Tuesday night during this year's Charlemont Forum on "Democracy at Risk." His speech was entitled “A Post-Constitutional Era in the United States: Have we Arrived?”
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Listeners fill the Charlemont Federated Church on Tuesday for the second talk of their forum on "Democracy at Risk". Attorney Buz Eisenberg speaks on "A Post-Constitutional Era in the United States: Have We Arrived?"
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CHARLEMONT — The last of seven Guantanamo detainees represented by Ashfield lawyer Buz Eisenberg is now awaiting resettlement, after being held without charges for 12 1/ 2 years — and after being cleared for transfer three times since 2007.
Eisenberg described his client’s plight as one example of how the United States Constitution “has been incessantly battered post-9/11.”
Speaking at this week’s Charlemont Forum, Eisenberg said: “The misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the toll they have taken on those people and our troops,” the erosion of freedom of speech after the passage of the PATRIOT Act, and the National Security Agency excesses disclosed by Edward Snowden were all a result, he said, of the three branches of the U.S. government “shirking constitutional duty in a rush to appear tough on terror.”
“That phenomenon is nothing new,” he said. “Fear has always been freedom’s greatest enemy.”
Eisenberg, who is also a professor of constitutional law and criminal justice at Greenfield Community College, began representing Guantanamo detainees in November 2004, without taking pay for this work.
Eisenberg said his client, the Palestinian Mohammed Abdulla Taha Mattan, was arrested with 22 other men who had stayed in a Pakistani guesthouse or motel roughly three weeks after an alleged “bad guy.” Mattan was taken into custody, held at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, then sent to Guantanamo in 2002.
“A total of 779 men have been detained at Guantanamo. Currently 149 remain caged there,” he said, “but soon that number should go down to 143 — 73 of whom have been cleared for transfer.”
“We have been told the Guantanamo detainees are the worst of the worst,” said Eisenberg, “picked up on the battlefield, that they are bomb-makers and facilitators of terror. As it has turned out, according to the military’s own findings, 8 percent were al-Qaida fighters while 92 percent were not,” said Eisenberg, citing information gleaned from the Department of Defense’s website. “Only 5 percent were picked up on a battlefield. ... And like Mattan and the other guesthouse men, 86 percent were sold to the U.S. forces for a bounty.”
According to Eisenberg $5,000 bounties were offered to Pakistanis for information leading to the arrest of terrorist suspects. He said the money represented a fortune in one of the world’s poorest nations, so many foreign young Muslims in the country were “turned in” by impoverished residents for reward money.
Eisenberg says the military has admitted that 55 percent of the detainees committed no hostile act against the U.S. or its allies, and that the other 45 percent included people who were fleeing from the bombing by U.S. forces.
“The central lie of Guantanamo is the whopper: that as a general proposition, it holds terrorists,” said Eisenberg, who has a security clearance and has been to Guantanamo many times. “It is only possible to sustain that lie through secrecy, through fear and propaganda.”
Eisenberg said most of the people held at Guantanamo without charge or constitutional due process were students like Mattan, orphans, the poor, relief workers, cooks, drivers and private soldiers. “The Taliban generals aren’t there,” he said. “They’re in the Afghan parliament, and in discussions with the State Department.
“I don’t say that there is no terrorist there — but, when you review the military data, when you search it for an act of violence against persons or property, for bombing or bomb-making or the teaching of terrorist tactics ... you find that this is, most of all, who ISN’T at Guantanamo.”
During a question-and-answer period after his talk, Eisenberg was asked why President Barack Obama has not closed Guantanamo, as he had pledged to do when running for president in 2008. Eisenberg said he had met Obama, when Obama was still a senator and discussed Guantanamo with him.
“Obama told me that everything about Guantanamo was an affront,” Eisenberg said.
Two days after Obama’s inauguration, the president created a team to review the case of every detainee, said Eisenberg. The review was completed in 2010. Eisenberg said the camp is still holding detainees because of “the politics of Congress,” and because there’s no place to send the remaining detainees.
Eisenberg said he grew up, a child of the 1960s, believing that society was evolving away from brutality toward a more just society, through the Civil Rights Act, expanded voting rights, the desegregation of schools and other regulations that Eisenberg said “were designed to increase the power of the powerless.”
“It now appears the humanism of the ’60s was an anomaly. The ensuing 30 years were a retrenchment, an era during which the powerful consolidated their power and used it to limit the advances in equality, in justice for all, and in democracy.” He implied that “war” has been used as an excuse for abuse of power, and that the “war on terror” could be unending.
Eisenberg quoted a passage of a letter written by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., in which King said he had almost reached the conclusion that the greatest stumbling block to equality for black people was “not the Klu Klux Klanner but the white moderate, who is more devoted to order that to justice.”
Eisenberg urged the audience to “take ownership” of the Constitution by voting, caring about how it is treated in our courtrooms, and in other parts of our civic life.
“The frightening truth is that our failure to act may not be at our expense,” he said. “It is our children’s liberty we are gambling with.”
This fifth annual Charlemont Forum addressed talks on the theme “Democracy at Risk,” and was partially funded by grants from the Buckland, Charlemont-Hawley, Heath and Shelburne cultural councils, through the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:: email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277