While everyone was getting all gussied up for New Year's Eve on Saturday, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, a controversial bill that the ACLU, for example, has called "a blight on his legacy" because it authorizes the indefinite military detention of American citizens. (Rupert Murdoch, however, calls Obama "very courageous.") We've put together this FAQ for those of you who are not just slightly uninformed about this issue, but hopelessly, embarrassingly confused.
Am I going to prison?
So why do I care about this?
Maybe you care about the gradual erosion of our most basic civil liberties?
Ehhh ... okay, fine.
The gist of the outcry is that Congress passed a law, which was signed by President Obama on Saturday, which authorizes the president to order the indefinite military detention of American citizens suspected of terrorism. This isn't an entirely new concept: Based on a very broad reading of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which granted the president powers in the war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, President Bush and President Obama have claimed that they can do this already. But the new legislation explicitly codifies that interpretation into law.
Yeah, can you believe it?
No, explain what indefinite is.
It means they can be held for as long as necessary, without a trial.
Aren't we doing that already at Guantanamera?
Guantanamo, yeah. But those prisoners are foreigners, often caught on the battlefield. The new law applies to American citizens taken into custody on American soil as well.
But putting terrorists in prison forever — that's a bad thing?
The whole point of our justice system is determining if someone is actually guilty of the charges against them. But in this case, the government can detain a suspect without ever having to prove their guilt.
You're soft on terror.
Let's keep this civilized.
What I mean is, this is a new kind of war. At least I've heard people say that. I'm not totally sure what it means.
It's true that the war on terror has required us to rethink certain aspects of how we handle national security. But civil libertarians would point out that, since 9/11, hundreds of terrorism suspects have been successfully convicted through the traditional, civilian criminal justice system.
Then why is Obama doing this to us?
Actually, Obama says he won't ever use the power to detain American citizens indefinitely, because, in his words, doing so "would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation."
So if he thinks the law is so bad, did he sign it as a prank? Ha ha, you thought I was going to shred the Constitution! That's pretty funny, actually. Not as good as the classic Elijah Wood episode of Punk'd, but almost.
Is MTV literally the only channel you watch?
Obama actually threatened to veto the legislation at first, but after the language was softened enough that he could essentially ignore it, he signed it. Also, it was embedded in the National Defense Authorization Act, a larger bill that funded the military, and he couldn't very well appear as if he didn't want to fund the military, especially in an election year in which the GOP will likely try to portray him as some kind of peacenik.
But if he's not going to use it, then it's all good — no harm no foul.
Except that the next president might not have a problem with detaining American citizens indefinitely, and now that the bill is law, he or she will have the explicit authorization to do so.
Yes. Obama can only stay in office for a maximum of another five years, and he may only serve for another year if he loses the election in November.
Isn't Obama, like, the most popular guy ever?
Where have you been?
I tuned out around February of 2009.
That explains a lot.