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Congress — Failing to Connect History’s Dots?

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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July 29, 2008

The House of Representatives on Tuesday is scheduled to vote on a resolution (H.R. 1357), which recognizes the significance of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 by President Reagan and the “greatness of America in her ability to admit and remedy past mistakes.”

Just what “past mistakes” is this resolution referencing? It addresses President Roosevelt’s fateful decision in 1942 to place over 110,000 Japanese-Americans into “internment camps.” A man by the name of Fred Korematsu refused to go quietly into the camps, bravely challenging the ugly, racist-fueled hysteria behind the internment decision head-on. The ACLU was right there beside him.

One of the aspects of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was a vow to “discourage the occurrence of similar injustices and violations of civil liberties in the future.”

I couldn’t help but take note of the sad irony that as Congress pats itself on the back by remembering one of the worst civil liberties abuses in U.S. history and our government’s vow to prevent future violations of liberty and due process, we are doing just the opposite today at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, where men are being held indefinitely and evidence extracted through torture can be used in the military commission proceedings currently underway.

Today, as we are able to look back over the past seven years and the many civil liberties abuses we have witnessed being committed by the Bush administration, the question of whether we have truly learned the lessons from the past by honoring our commitment to prevent future violations of our most fundamental rights and liberties from occurring begs asking.

Resolutions like the one the House will consider on Tuesday are perfectly fine and good (I would happily vote in favor of it myself). However, what is really important is ensuring that the vow Congress made 20 years ago to prevent future civil liberties abuses is more than a paper promise. Congress must now truly honor the legacy of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 by taking bold actions to prevent the very real and current abuses from continuing.

Closing Guantanamo Bay and the ugly legacy it now represents would be a perfect place to start.