BY YANYAN LAM
Over fifty Harvard law students and professors gathered last Thursday afternoon outside the Hark to attend a staged funeral for the Constitution. The event was a protest against the percieved treatment of detainees held by the United States at the Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba; specifically, denial of legal rights such as habeas corpus and guaranteed freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Dressed in black, the organizers of the funeral offered a eulogy to the nation’s founding document, buried a mock-Constitution, and erected a tombstone over its grave.
“Two hundred and twenty-nine years ago the Constitution was born,” said Reverend Mike Jones during the eulogy. “But one week ago, in the mad rush as Congress closed before elections, it was killed, trampled underfoot by three hundred and eighteen Senators and Congresspersons.” Jones was referring to the recent passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006. The Act strips courts of jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus appeals from detainees and gives the President broad authority to determine which interrogation techniques he deems permissible under the Geneva Conventions. Students charge that these provisions risk leaving the door open for acts that constitute torture.
In keeping with their denunciation of the Military Commissions Act as a “torture bill”, the “pallbearers” of the Harvard funeral wore signs on the front identifying them as individual Congresspersons who voted for the Act. The signs on their backs carried the slogan, “Vote Torture 2006.” The pallbearers were also flanked by robed and hooded classmates who evoked the now-infamous image of torture in Abu Ghraib. The culmination of the funeral came as the protest’s participants and onlookers alike came forward one by one to lay flowers on the Constitution’s grave, while the eulogy ended with a call to action for students and a message to members of the judiciary.
“If we bury the Constitution today, it is only to urge that the Supreme Court breathe life into it again… we know it has the means,” Reverend Jones concluded.
When asked about the goal of hosting the event, one of the organizers, 2L Deborah Popowski, replied, “Our goal was to shake things up a little. Laws are not made in a vacuum. There can be no change without politics, without mobilization. If we don’t light the spark – we, who have the time and resources to attract attention – then how can we expect anyone else to?”
Co-organizer Jacob Kopas, 3L, agreed: “I really hope this will affect conversation. The disturbing situation in Guantanamo implicates such fundamental notions of liberty and justice that everyone has an obligation to speak out against it. Given Harvard’s prominent position in the legal community, our failure to take a stand constitutes tacit approval of these injustices.”
Held as part of a nationwide day of reflection on Guantanamo and the government’s broader response to the war on terror, the mock-funeral followed a two-hour public forum entitled, “Guantanamo: How Should We Respond?” Professors, students, and others gathered at the outdoor forum to speak out on such issues as the use of torture against detainees, the denial of due process rights to those held at Guantanamo, and the impact of U.S. anti-terror policies on foreign policy and human rights issues around the world.
Several speakers at the forum, however, defended the government’s actions. Professor Alan Dershowitz stated that “there isn’t a government in the world that wouldn’t resort to torture” in the face of a terrorist threat. Dershowitz has strongly advocated for a system of “torture warrants” that would give explicit and clear guidelines for what interrogation techniques were being authorized. In a 2003 CNN interview, he gave the example of the insertion of sterilized needles under a person’s fingernails to cause “excruciating pain” as a method of interrogation.
Thursday’s events come after a week-long advocacy effort by a coalition of Harvard professors who wrote an open letter to Congress urging the defeat of the Military Commissions Act. Further information on the open letter – which garnered 633 signatures from law faculty representing 49 states – is available on Harvard Law School’s news website at http://www.law.harvard.edu/news/2006/09/28_letter.php.