Roundtable: Guantanamo Tribunal Ruling

Farai Chideya is joined by Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, Callie Crossley, social/cultural commentator on the TV show Beat the Press in Boston, and Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post. Topics: a New Orleans judge sentences three Katrina looters to 15 years in prison; and the Supreme Court rules the president exceeded his power when he ordered war crimes trials for Guantanamo detainees without authorization from Congress.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. I'm sitting in for Ed Gordon.

On today's roundtable, the Supreme Court says no to military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees. A New Orleans judge makes an example of Katrina looters by handing down the maximum punishment.

Joining us today to discuss these topics and more, Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, is in Winston-Salem at WFDD. And at station WGBH in Boston, Callie Crossley. She's a social cultural commentator on the television show, Beat the Press, in Boston. And Joe Davidson joins us from our Washington, D.C. headquarters. He's an editor at the Washington Post.

Welcome and let's jump right in. So there are three looters in New Orleans. They get 15 years in prison for stealing liquor. About 30 bottles of liquor, some beer, some wine - 15 years. By contrast, the punishment for manslaughter isn't much more than 20 years. Joe Davidson, what's going on here?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, The Washington Post): Well I think there's an effort on the part of local officials in New Orleans and Louisiana, and around the country for that matter - and this happened in Kenner, not New Orleans, Louisiana - to show that they will definitely be tough on crime in the aftermath of Katrina, and that looting that occurred then will not be tolerated.

I think, though, that to take - to sentence people to this kind of term in prison really demonstrates just how far apart, I think, some of the authorities can be in their sentencing plans, and some of the experts are in what is really good for criminal justice in the long run.

Many people point out that for first time offenders, and at least one of these persons, at least Mr. Pearson, had no criminal history. The woman who was arrested later, was hired by the store that she was convicted of looting.

People in these kinds of situations, many experts say, that rather than sentencing them to long time, long-terms in jail, that they should have some more type of rehabilitative sentence. Maybe halfway houses, maybe they could have the form of home imprisonment with electronic monitoring. Things that would allow them to return to society in a productive way, rather than going to what often is a higher education for criminal behavior, and that's imprisonment, for a long term.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, Callie, there's a saying, never tempt an honest man. How many people in the same situation might have taken advantage? I'm not saying it's right, but is this a situation where you have career criminals, or is it a situation of crime of opportunity? And should we even try to make a distinction in this case?

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Social/Cultural Commentator, Beat the Press): It definitely was a crime of opportunity. And I can understand to some degree why at that moment it might have seem like it the great thing to do. I'm guessing that this was early on before people realized how intense the situation was.

And I have two emotional responses. I mean my first, at first blush, was to be just as angry as the judge and to say, you know, that's right, throw the book at them. People were out here without water for God sake and these are folks trying to, you know, loot a store for liquor. This is ridiculous.

On the other hand, then I thought to myself about the global implications of this. Assuming all these people are African-American, and we're talking about, once again, in the justice system - seeming to have a disproportionate numbers of folks in jail as Joe has mentioned with sentences that are not appropriate for the crime.

So yes it's a crime of opportunity, yes it's heinous as far as I'm concerned, given the circumstances, but I do think that instead of making a statement about how awful this crime was, this crime of opportunity, that in fact it goes the other way. Because you think, well wait a minute? What's that? Fifteen years? Come on.

CHIDEYA: Nat?

Professor NAT IRVIN (Professor of Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Well I just think it's ridiculous. I mean basically what has happened is that the judge has sentenced - if this sentence should hold up - he's essentially sentenced him to life in prison. Because if you spend 15 years in prison in today's society, in which everything is changing so rapidly, you basically come out, you don't even recognize the world that you, you know - the world that you left and the world that you would come out in are completely different places. So it's ridiculous. That's the first thing.

The second thing is, it doesn't make sense on a practical level. You know, of all the places - Louisiana, Kenner, New Orleans - they need people to help to clean up the place. The most common sense thing would be to say, anybody caught looting - instead of putting them in jail, put them to work. Let them have two years of wearing a sign that says I was caught looting during Katrina. But at least they will be doing something about the situation. They'll be, you know, involved in cleaning up the place.

When you look at the challenges that the whole city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana is faced with, just from a practical standpoint, they really need people to do it. So now here's what the judge does. Instead, he puts people in jail. So what are they going to have to do? Now they're wards of the state. Somebody has to care for them. They should be caring for others.

And, you know, the other thing is this: when you look at the sentence, being sentenced in life in prison for having stolen liquor - okay, that's one thing. But, you know, and they should suffer some kind of punishment. But it ought not be anywhere near…

CHIDEYA: It's 15 years, yeah.

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah, but I mean, it ought not be anywhere near what Ken Lay, Andy Fastow - people who have really looted - looting pensions, stealing from hundreds of thousands of people - that's what you ought to really be putting people in prison for. Stealing liquor six days after Katrina, that's ridiculous. They shouldn't have done it, of course. No question about that. But let's have some common sense here.

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know there's also the factor that when people go to jail for a long period of time, it's just not those individuals that pay a cost, it's the taxpayers. You know, to keep somebody in jail costs, like, $20,000-30,000 a year. And a number of states around the country have begun moderating some of these long sentences, some of these mandatory sentences.

Not out of any - not because all these state legislators are suddenly joined the ACLU, it's because they have to pay the bill. They have to sometimes either raise taxes or cut back on other services in order to fund these huge populations in prison. So there's a cost to the individual taxpayer as well as to the individual who is incarcerated.

CHIDEYA: I want to move onto another topic that has to do with incarceration. This is Guantanamo Bay. The U.S., of course, holding what we call enemy combatants. And the Supreme Court, in a 5-3 ruling with our new chief justice abstaining, said that the administration cannot hold military tribunals for enemy combatants. Did rule on whether or not there should be a time limit on how long detainees could be held.

But this ruling comes right after three detainees committed suicide. Callie, what's the implication of this ruling?

Ms. CROSSLEY: The implication is that, hopefully, there is a point that the Supreme Court will take a look at where the Bush administration is pushing and say, enough already. However, I will note that in a lower court level, Judge Roberts did vote in favor of this. So it would've been 5-4 if he had not abstained.

I mean, I think the larger implications, of course, are global. And how are we going to maintain and do what we say that we think should be happening around the world in terms of justice, in terms of democracy, in terms of fairness about prisoners and how they are held and treated. And then do this is Guantanamo. And then try to have the kinds of - to put in place systems that do not afford people the basics rights that we say are fundamentally American and that we would expect and hope would happen if our guys were held prisoner.

You know, that's the implication. And, finally, the court has said, you know, no more. And it's about time for Congress and President Bush - if there is some reasonable way to come up with something that addresses his concerns about “putting murderers on the street,” then come up with something. But this was not appropriate and the court wisely said that.

CHIDEYA: Joe, you're at the Washington Post. How are your reporters covering this story.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well there's a story in today's paper, which with Peter Baker and Michael Abramowitz. And they - it's an analysis, which says that this is the decision echoed not simply as a matter of law, but as a rebuke of a governing philosophy of a leader who has repeatedly - who at repeated turns has operated on the principle that it is better to act than to ask permission.

And I think that this gets to the heart of it in many ways. I think that this -while this ruling dealt with a particular individual in a particular case, it definitely could have brought implications for the way in which President Bush has conducted his presidency, which some have called an imperial presidency.

It could have implications, for example, for the CIA's network of secret prisons. But I say it could, not that it will. Because while many might view this as sweeping, and it might in fact turn out to be sweeping, I think it remains to be seen, just how the administration reacts to this in practical terms. Will it say, because of the Supreme Court ruling, the CIA's network of prisons will now be abolished? I kind of doubt it. And so it might be sweeping in a theoretical level, just how - what impact it's going to have on a practical level I think remains to be seen, particularly if Congress does what the administration will probably ask them to do, which will basically codify, I assume, what they've been doing already.

CHIDEYA: Nat, picking up off of...

Prof. IRVIN: Well, you know, I think...

CHIDEYA: ...let me just...

Prof. IRVIN: Okay.

CHIDEYA: ...sort of throw one thing in here. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. That's what people say. Now, does that hold true for people? You know, is the possession of these detainees by the U.S. government basically going to gum up the works in terms of any kinds of changes in how the U.S. government treats these people? But I didn't mean to interrupt you.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, no, I was just going to say that I think Joe makes a great point in - but one of the things that we - that I think that there's often missed in this discussion, and it's a very complicated ruling by the Supreme Court, is that we're talking about suspects here. That's the key thing. These are people who we believe may have committed terrorist acts against the United States or harbor the intention of doing it, but we don't know that.

And the key thing, as Callie pointed out, is that we have to demonstrate to the world, to ourselves, that there is a fair process. The president has been operating as if he's the decider in chief. You know, he's the judge, he's the jury, he's the prosecutor. He comes up with these tribunals that the, you know, the Supreme Court said you can't do what you've just done.

It doesn't even effect what the United States Congress said was a fundamental basic standard for both what military tribunals ought to be and then second, how we have signed on the Geneva Conventions, what those guidelines are. The -you know, basically the president was just operating as the, as I said earlier, as the imperial presidency, and it has gone so far to where even Republicans are saying, oh, wait a minute. Pull back a little bit here. And that's what I think the court is saying here.

And I think, you know, when you look at our history, in times of war, we have a tendency to do some things that we later regret. And I won't recite all of them, but the most recent is having the, you know, having interned our own American citizens who happen to be of Japanese descent. We don't know what kinds of errors we are making right now by assuming that the president - or having had assumed until the Supreme Court said it - that the president can do basically just what he wants to do under the guise of the war on terror.

I think the final thing I would say, too, it also illustrates how important the federal elections are becoming, the presidential elections are becoming when it comes to who appoints whom to the Supreme Court. This ruling will be viewed in some ways, maybe not in 2006, but certainly 2008, looking - probably sharpening their knives for who is it that you think will be appointed to the Supreme Court. So there's a lot here.

Mr. DAVIDSON: But it also could be a very important - play an important role in the 2006 elections, because the Congressional elections are up this year for the entire House and a third of the Senate. And if the...

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah, you're right about that.

Mr. DAVIDSON: ...and if the administration goes to Congress and asks for permission to do what it wants to do, as it relates to this case, then that obviously could play a big role in the Congressional elections this fall.

CHIDEYA: And those elections are sneaking up...

Ms. CROSSLEY: And let me just say this last thing...

CHIDEYA: Okay.

Ms. CROSSLEY: ...if I could, Farai. And that is that this ruling has given some strength to people who, around the country - around the world rather - who've been calling for the close down of Guantanamo - I can't even say it. And particularly President Bush's strongest ally, Tony Blair has been trying to back up and back up. I think this ruling gives more under-girding for folks who are - just do not believe that this is the way that the United States ought to be proceeding.

CHIDEYA: Well, we don't have too much time left, but I - there's one more topic that I think you guys can sink your teeth into.

Michael Steele, who is the Lt. Governor of my home state of Maryland, has raised some eyebrows because one of his campaign contributors, one on the host committee of his fundraiser, was the creator of the Willy Horton ads. We all remember those when Michael Dukakis was basically put into a context of letting murderers and rapists through a revolving door. Willy Horton was the central figure in that campaign. Of course, he was African-American. A lot of folks said, wow, this is just like some kind of, you know, Jim Crow-era advertising.

So, Callie, quickly, does this help Steele, because it firms up his reputation with white Republicans who may say, is he going to be too soft on race? Or does this hurt Steele because, in Maryland, it's considered that you have to win at least 25 percent of the black vote to win?

Ms. CROSSLEY: I think it does both, actually. I think it makes people, black folks, say, listen, I mean, as somebody has said, if you're going to have these people giving you money, they must be getting something back. And so I have to wonder about you.

Usually what happens, in terms of the folks who eye with suspicion black republicans, it comes down to issues of race. And we're talking about people providing money to this campaign who have long histories of not being supportive of African-American interests around racial concerns. And so that makes folks suspicious, black folks suspicious. On the other hand, I imagine it gives aid and comfort to white people who think you're just going to get in there and turn into - turn out to be another Jesse Jackson. That's what I (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: Of course not all white people feel that way, but I should also point out that he's running for the U.S. Senate, which links directly back into this whole question of these elections. Go ahead.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, my point is that, if you're trying to reach, you know, some of the white population that's a little bit suspect about you because of racial issues, I guess that this kind of thing might make those folks feel more comfortable. So I think it can play out both ways.

CHIDEYA: All right, really quickly, Nat and then Joe.

Prof. IRVIN: Oh, I just think it'll be very interesting to see whether the Democrats, later on, if - depending on who's, you know, running against Steele - whether or not they're going to use the same hardened approach toward Mr. Steele in the fall campaigns. It'll be quite ironic. I think this is just basically race baiting. I think that it's the worst kind of approach.

Listen, if Mr. Steele - if you like what Mr. Steele stands for, vote for him. If you don't, don't vote for him. I mean, this is part of the difficulty of being a black Republican. I basically - I resent the whole idea that somebody has to - I mean, you know, Democrats - do you check everybody who supports every Democrat? Do you go check every last one of them to see whether they are pure and somehow, you know, supportive of everything that, quote, "black folks" would be supportive of?

CHIDEYA: So a double standard.

Prof. IRVIN: This is hardball - yes, a double standard. It's hardball politics, and it's nasty. But I'll tell you, if you play it too hard - it'll be ironic to see if he runs campaign slogans and showing this particular candidate, Mr. Steele, use the same people that ran the Willy Horton campaign. Wouldn't that be ironic?

CHIDEYA: All right. Joe, unfortunately, I don't have time to get to you, but hold that thought.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Okay, I'll do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Joe Davidson is an editor with The Washington Post. He joined us from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. Also, in Wake Forest, Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, WFDD. Callie Crossley, WBGH, Boston, social and cultural commentator on the television show, Beat the Press.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thanks.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Have a good weekend.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS AND NOTES, most people think of Mexico when they think of immigration these days, but we'll meet a man who's written about his complex relationship with the U.S. and his native country, Vietnam.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.