Our march toward justice has been long and not without setback, but as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once reminded us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” His words have special resonance for me today, the 217th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, as this dark period in history draws to a close. Under the guise of safety and security, we have endured continual assaults on the basic principles on which this country rests: civil rights and liberties, open and limited government and a basic respect for the rule of law. Come January, Americans could have an opportunity to restore the vitality of our Bill of Rights, and resume the struggle to turn America into the place that Dr. King dreamed of where “justice runs down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
From the moment he takes office, President-elect Barack Obama will have the power to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, shut down the military commissions, stop abusive interrogations and prohibit the rendition of people to countries where they are likely to be tortured. These practices are a disgraceful perversion of everything good and decent this country stands for.
Indeed, our nation’s founders fought a revolution to escape England’s secret courts and gruesome brutality. They sought to create a society that prohibited the government from holding someone in jail indefinitely without charge, that allowed the accused to challenge the state’s evidence against him or her, and that protected citizens from intrusive and unwarranted searches and seizures. These principles have played a vital role in making America a country “of laws and not of men.”
But just over two centuries later, the Bush administration decided that it was above the law – at Guantanamo Bay, in the military commission process, and in the torture and rendition of those in our custody. We have imprisoned people at Guantanamo whom even the Department of Defense admits have no connection to terrorism or Al Qaeda. And, the president has refused to shut down the CIA’s secret “black site” prisons or to acknowledge the illegality of water torture.
When our nation’s founders ratified the Bill of Rights 217 years ago today, they knew that justice could not be served in secret, and that conviction and punishment doled out in the shadows inexorably leads to illegitimacy. Our commitment to civil liberties and the rule of law are not just the measure by which the world judges us but they are also the foundation on which our freedom and democracy rest. President-elect Obama has the power, on his first day of office, to restore the Bill of Rights and bend the moral arc a little closer towards justice. We, as Americans, must make sure he doesn’t get led astray.