Despite the failures on all fronts of the Bush administration, nothing will stigmatize the legacy of the outgoing president and his party more than the un-American assault on civil liberties and the unjustified stigmatization and isolation of Arab Americans and American Muslims.
Eric Holder, former Deputy Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, listens to questioning in this file image from February 14, 2001. Holder has accepted President-Elect Barack Obama’s appointment, which is subject to confirmation, to U.S. Attorney General, according to Newsweek magazine on November 18, 2008. REUTERS/Win McNamee
Arabs, Muslims and all minority groups afflicted by the discriminatory and prejudicial policies of the Bush administration, and the roll-back of civil liberties post 9-11, can breathe a cautious sigh of relief at the reports that President-Elect Barack Obama will appoint 57 year old attorney Eric Holder to the post of Attorney General. Holder served as second in command in the justice department under President Clinton.
Civil liberties advocates suffered over the long, deafening silence about civil liberties in the 2008 political campaigns. President-Elect Obama, with this pick, has definitely stayed true to the principles upon which he ran.
In a June speech to a gathering of the American Constitution Society (ACS), a progressive organization of lawyers and law students, Holder blasted the Bush administration’s policies as “immora.” Holder said the policies weakened the government’s position at home and abroad in its fight against terrorism.
Holder described the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II and the Supreme Court decision upholding it as “one of the darkest moments in American constitutional history.” He said that although the government did not do the same to American Muslims after 9/11, much of the action it did take was “excessive and unlawful.” Holder said “Our government authorized the use of torture, approved secret electronic surveillance of American citizens without due process of law, and denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of enemy combatants. I do not question the motives and patriotism of those responsible in implementing these policies. But this does nothing to mitigate the fact that these steps were wrong when they were initiated, and they are wrong now… We owe the American people a reckoning.”
Later in his speech to the ACS, Holder indirectly lambasted President Bush and his administration. “In their pursuit of the war on terror, too many of our leaders forgot who we are as a nation,” Holder said. Holder surprisingly seemed to open a door toward possible legal prosecution of the president or his administration officials by directly accusing the president of intentionally violating federal law. “I never thought I would see a president act in direct defiance of federal law by authorizing the warrantless NSA surveillance of American citizens. This disrespect for the rule of law is not only wrong; it is destructive in the struggle against terrorism.”
Much of the media coverage on the substance of Holder’s speech concentrated on his specific policy positions, including that the government should close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, declare that America does not engage in torture, and stop warrantless domestic surveillance. However, the passion and urgency in the speech he delivered went much farther than those measured policy proposals. Holder is an individual with a real belief in the principles of fairness and justice, which have been lacking in the current administration.
Pending Senate confirmation, Holder will be the first African American to hold the post of attorney general. He concluded by expressing a personal determination to restrain the government’s discretion in investigating Americans. “To those in the executive branch that say ‘trust us,’ I say remember your history. In my lifetime, federal government officials wiretapped, harassed and blackmailed Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders in the name of national security. One of America’s greatest heroes was treated like a criminal by those in our federal government possessed of too much discretion and a warped sense of patriotism.”
We should all agree with Holder that “It is our task over the next several years to reverse the disastrous course we have been on over the past few years.” If Holder is a man of his word, the U.S. will begin again to move forward on the long road toward improving its moral standing and justice system, and a new chapter in American history will be written.
Tarek M. Baydoun is a second-year law student at the University of Toledo College of Law.