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Top 10 Reasons to Repeal the Military Commissions Act

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET

As I first mentioned on the 4th of July, there's now a petition going to repeal the Military Commissions Act, the bill that formally made Guantanamo legal.

Needless to say, there's no shortage of reasons to repeal the MCA. But for now here's the top ten:

10. If it didn't work 2000+ years ago, it won't now either. From Juvenal's famous dictum -- Quis ipsos custodes custodiet?, or "Who should guard the guardians?" -- to Plato's musings in The Republic, the basic problems of military justice have a long history. Yet unfortunately, none of our classical authors -- not even Plato -- had a good answer. In fact, it wasn't until America's founders came along that anyone posed an adequate solution. And their answer, of course, was what we now know as the separation of powers doctrine: the only way to trust the physical power of the state, they argued, was to disperse it. Alas, the MCA does the exact opposite. By making military justice accountable only to itself, it concentrates power unilaterally. And if that kind of power structure didn't work in antiquity (think Sparta), I don't see any reason to expect that it would today.

9. Cuban dissidents. Castro lives on the same island as the world's most famous detention center. So who runs it again?

8. The greatest generation. My grandfather was an artillery man who fought all the way from Normandy to Berlin. Like a lot of veterans, he said little about the war -- so little, in fact, that we never knew he'd won a Silver Star until we found it in his dresser after he passed. Frankly, the only solace I can find in his death is that it happened a year before Bush opened Guantanamo. Because any time I think of what he would have made of our detention centers -- let alone the legislation that make them legal -- I cringe. For him to have considered Guantanamo, after all, would have been to entertain the painful possibility that the principles for which he fought might no longer exist.

7. The next generation. I was ten when the Berlin Wall fell -- too young to fully grasp what had happened, yet old enough to sense not only that something momentous was taking place, but that America had played a positive role in bringing it about. By contrast, my younger cousin turned ten just after the Abu Graib scandal broke. His is a world in which America is known not for its freedom and liberty but for its torture and detainment. If that doesn't scare you, it should. In another decade, a generation will come of age for whom secret prisons were not an exception.

6. Chinese dissidents. Put simply, next summer's Olympics in Beijing could be a golden opportunity to press China on its human rights record. If only.

5. Darfur. Apart from China's involvement, there's really only two reasons the crisis there has dragged on as long as it has. The first is that the U.S. is the only country with a standing army large enough to stabilize a region that vast, but we're currently bogged down in Iraq. The second is that the U.S. is the only country with enough soft power to push a deal through peacefully, but because of the MCA we now lack the moral legitimacy to force a non-military solution.

4. American soldiers. We have tens of thousands of combat soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We almost certainly have reconnaissance teams in western Iran and northern Pakistan. And as we discovered again last May, any time you have soldiers in a hostile region, it's inevitable that some of them will be captured. But when you revoke your commitment to the Geneva Conventions, how do you expect them to be treated?

3. Justice Kennedy. As I noted on Friday, the Supreme Court will be hearing a case on the Military Commissions Act in their next term. And after the term that just ended, do you really want to wait and see which side he lands on?

2. The Iranian bomb. I'm no hawk when it comes to Iran, and I'd rather not contribute to their demonization in the American press. Yet the reality is that a nuclear Iran, though containable, would not be a good thing for the world. Especially not the Middle East, and particularly not Israel and Lebanon. So where the MCA is concerned, the trouble is this: in order to argue that Iran cannot be trusted with a nuclear weapon whereas we can, we need to be able to demonstrate that our government is more legitimate than theirs. The MCA, shall we say, makes that a bit difficult. By denying habeas corpus to foreign detainees, we're compromising our moral legitimacy precisely where it's most needed.

1. Stephen Colbert. As far as I can tell, there's only one good thing about the MCA: if we manage to repeal it, Stephen Colbert would blush like a giddy schoolboy at his first dance. And whenever that happens, you know there's hope for the world after all.

--Chris Meserole is the editor of Democratic Vista and the founder of Thinker Media.