June 17, 2005

America: Presumed guilty


When a California jury decided this week that pop icon Michael Jackson was not guilty of child molestation, many people were flummoxed.

After all, this was a man who had admitted to sharing his bed with young boys, took pains to talk publicly about how children like to be touched, faced charges of sexual molestation multiple times-settling one case out of court by paying his accuser's family-and announced in a widely publicized TV interview in 2003 that he would kill himself if he could not be around children.

But despite the widespread calls for Jackson's conviction and imprisonment, Monday's verdict in a Santa Maria courtroom was a victory for the rule of law.

While many members of the press and late-night TV comedians long ago rendered judgment against Jackson, the fact remained that the case against Jackson-at least the one heard by the public-did not conclusively demonstrate that the pop star was guilty of any of the charges against him, including four charges of child molestation, one charge of attempted child molestation, one conspiracy charge and eight counts of providing alcohol to minors.

Jackson shared his bed with children, but that is not a crime. The same goes for touching children in non-sexual or non-abusive ways. Jackson settled a molestation case in 1993, but it's well within the realm of possibility that the enormously wealthy singer paid his accuser a settlement to avoid the sort of bad publicity he has been met with during this trial, not because he actually molested the young boy. And though Jackson dangerously and foolishly dangled his own child from a hotel window in Berlin in 2002, the court in California was not asked to decide any counts of reckless endangerment.

Jackson is a weirdo, to be sure, and he may be in desperate need of a good psychiatrist (perhaps he could schedule one in between plastic surgery appointments), but that does not automatically make him a criminal.

Now, it's quite possible that Jackson is guilty of some or all of the charges against him. Police would do well to watch him closely, and parents who even consider sending their children for overnight visits to Jackson's famed Neverland ranch in the Santa Barbara mountains probably should have their heads examined.

But the US justice system should not send people to jail for probabilities. It should send them to jail only when it has been proven beyond reasonable doubt that they have committed crimes. In this case, there simply was not enough certainty that Jackson was guilty of the crimes cited, and Jackson's acquittal was a sign of the strength of the rule of law over the sway of public opinion.

Unfortunately, that same basic standard has been ignored by the US Justice Department in the cases of thousands of suspected terrorists. Since the revelations more than a year ago of abuse by US military personnel of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, many more instances of prolonged detention, torture and deaths of detainees under US oversight have come to light.

Earlier this year, Americans learned of a young Afghani man held by US authorities under torturous conditions in Afghanistan even after it became clear that he was no more than a taxi driver caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The man eventually died in US custody from wounds inflicted during his interrogation.

Last month, Amnesty International issued a report calling the US military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba "the gulag of our times." While Amnesty's anti-Israel and anti-US biases raise serious questions about the credibility of any assessment they might make, many elements of Amnesty's report-such as the finding that many detainees at Guantanamo remain in a "legal black hole," without access to any court, legal counsel, family visits or due process-have been demonstrated conclusively in other forums.

Over the last few weeks, public debate in America has intensified over the CIA's controversial practice of "rendition"-sending terrorist suspects to third countries for detention and interrogation, often involving torture.

In one case, a Canadian citizen was seized by US authorities while on US soil, then sent by the CIA to Jordan and then to Syria, where he was tortured and held in solitary confinement. More than a year passed before he was freed-without charge.

The number of people who have been subjected to such treatment is unknown, and that's part of the problem. What's more, the CIA's practice of outsourcing interrogation of suspects to known human-right violators where torture is likely breaks the basic principle of the rule of law, puts US citizens at risk of the same treatment by other governments and may yield no better information than that which can be obtained under legal interrogation methods.

Certainly, the war against terrorism requires unique methods of law enforcement. Police cannot wait until terrorists attacks to take action; governments must proactively track terrorists and stop them before they can perpetrate attacks.

But there are ways to do this without employing policies that systematically deprive prisoners of the right to due process or send suspects to places where they will be tortured or killed.

When it comes to fighting terrorism without foregoing the fundamental principle of the rule of law, America would do well to take a page from the playbook of Israel, which has more carefully straddled the gray lines of prevention, detention and interrogation. To be sure, Israel has not always been on the right side of the law, and sometimes there is no time in Israel for protracted legal debates. But Israel tries, and it has come up with formulae that generally both work and are legal.

America would do well to take note.