An article in today's New York times is accompanied by a stark picture of Jose Padilla at some unknown point during his period of detention as an "enemy combatent." I'm sure apologists for the Bush administration's policy of infinite detention would argue forcing Padilla to wear blacked-out goggles and noise-blocking headphones while shackling his arms and legs was merely part of an effort to encourage docility. But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and it's not hard to be troubled by the unintended (or intended?) messages the picture sends. For one, it's impossible not to see such restraining and blocking out of senses as a method of psychological warfare. Padilla's lawyers argue that during his detention he was a model prisoner, acquiescing in his treatment by the government. If that's the case, what other reason could there be for treating him such except to exert some sort of pscyhological and mental coercion upon him, to force him to accept that he is in fact utterly powerless before his captors, and that his fate is ultimately entirely up to them? Secondly, although it is common for prison guards to outfit themselves in the equivalent of riot-gear when dealing with the most violent of prisoners, there's something disturbing about the sight of a prisoner of the government surrounded by men in camoflogue, by soldiers of our government, wearing masks that obscure their faces and thus their identities. What could be more symbolic of the dangers of unrestrained government power than a man shackled and bound, senses obscured, surrounded by soldiers who do not answer to any civilian court?
Those who favor such treatment of terrorists suspects (whether or not they are in fact terrorists) will surely argue that such measures are necessary when it comes to protecting the American people from hard-core terrorists who cannot be dissuaded from attacking us except by use of extreme measures of coercion and detention. But it is no less true that the sight of a man bound and shackled, cut off from the world and surrounded by masked soldiers of our government, should provoke feelings of unease in any who value human freedom. The founders of our republic knew that to give the government the power to detain prisoners indefinitely and treat them as they wish without being called to account in any court, whatever the reason, was to assure that such authority would be abused at some point. Apologists for such deliberately dehumanizing treatment (never fearing that it could be used on them as they are after all loyal to the administration in power) argue that the threat of terror is so great that it justifies granting the government the authority to exempt itself from provisions of the constitution as it sees fit. And yet this hypothetical justification does not comport with a reality where Jose Padilla is in fact one man who never came close to executing a terrorist operation of any kind.