Historian Peter Linebaugh says Magna Carta provisions were violated at Guantanamo Bay (interview)

Historians in the News
tags: Guantanamo, torture, Magna Carta

Peter Linebaugh retired from the University of Toledo. He is the author of The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the Magna Carta?

PETER LINEBAUGH: Magna Carta is a parchment document from the Middle Ages. June 15th, 1215, in a meadow in England on the River Thames, the big tyrant of the time, King John, Bad King John, was forced to sign this document, because he had been taxing people, he had been tyrannizing people, and actually he had been forcing women also to—he chose their husbands for them. So this Magna Carta put a limit on his authorities, on his tyrannies, and it described, really, for much of the world the right of resistance.

So, you go to Runnymede now, which is the meadow in England where this parchment document was sealed and signed, and the American Bar Association has put a plinth there, a memorial-like rotunda, and it says—tries to summarize the importance of Magna Carta by saying "liberty under law." But they put this up in 1955, when they were really very conservative. But actually Magna Carta means "the king under law." It means "authority or sovereignty under law." And that’s what was so important to subsequent generations around the world, including Americans. And it’s also a theme that has been forgotten, and we need to recover it.

It still plays a very important part in law against tyranny. For example, last summer, in June 2004, when the Supreme Court admitted that the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay should have some kind of judicial hearing, Magna Carta was cited. Or last—two months ago, in December, the House of Lords in England struck down the English equivalent to the PATRIOT bill on the grounds of arbitrary arrest, putting people away without a trial or an indictment. And we’ve seen, in England, Ian Macdonald, for example, a barrister, has resigned from any of the kangaroo courts on the grounds that this is a violation of Magna Carta.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the Magna Carta relate to, for example, detentions at Guantánamo?

PETER LINEBAUGH: Really in two—I’m not sure I can cover it all, but you take chapter 39 of Magna Carta, probably the most famous clause. That is, you can still find it on courthouses in the United States. You can still find it in old constitutional books. It prohibits torture. And it says that no man—no free man may be arrested or imprisoned without due process of law and judgment by his or her peers. So you can see already, in quoting that chapter, as I’ve just done, that its provisions are violated in Guantánamo Bay, all four that I cited. There’s no jury trial. There’s without due process of law, without habeas corpus, and by the exercise of torture. So these are the ways that in Guantánamo Bay it is violated.

AMY GOODMAN: So why has the Magna Carta been forgotten?

PETER LINEBAUGH: Well, I think we haven’t been doing our job, us professors, I think, across the United States. You look at the neoconservative professors, and they also ignore Magna Carta. I think whatever the ideological background of professors, they have ignored it. It has—except for lawyers and except for other thinking citizens, really, from an older generation who still remember the lessons of World War II, which, remember, Bush now lies about. Remember his speech in Congress. He said, "We have our freedoms of religion, our freedom of speech," but he completely omitted the freedom from want and the freedom from fear. So, in a way, he lied about that generation. And he’s not the only one. The rest of us might be forgiven because we weren’t taught, but it’s up to us, too, now to remember this, I think, as habeas corpus, trial by jury, due process of law are being violated, and Americans are asked to sacrifice their lives and to become killers in the name of freedom, but without understanding this basis of it....

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