The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight Over Presidential Power, by Jonathan Mahler

Four stars (of five)

Mahler sets out not only to recount a wonderful legal thriller, but also to exemplify just how far-reaching and undemocratic the Bush Administration sought to be in their tyrannical War on Terror. Depicting a challenge of the military tribunal approach for Guantanamo captives, which makes its way to the US Supreme Court, JAG lawyer Charles Swift and constitutional lawyer Neal Katyal challenge the law and sue the President of the United States along with the Secretary of Defence. What follows is a tale that weaves through the legal system. It tries not only to clarify the rights of detainees, but pokes holes in the rash and undemocratic system the Bush Administration sought to implement, all in the name of ‘justice for those who died on September 11, 2001’. Mahler uses historical recounting to show the progression of events, including key legal arguments, to highlight for the layperson the extent to which democracy was being eroded under the noses of the electorate and, to some degree, even Congress. Powerfully written and full of ‘a-ha’ moments, Mahler captures the story quite effectively while offering his own spin on events. A must-read for constitutional and legal fans alike. 

While some have argued that Mahler’s book is overly one-sided, I must deflate this argument by agreeing entirely. The casual reader and news watcher will have been inculcated and choked with Bush-era spin, weighing in on the need for these sorts of military tribunals and how detainees should not be treated with the rights of Geneva Conventions or even basic human rights. This argument is not new and has been provided clearly through the memoirs of those in the den of thieves (Bush, Chaney, Rumsfeld), but it is inherently wrong from a legal perspective, as the US Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Mahler shows how the arguments made their way to the Supreme Court and Bush’s flagrant suspension of the basic rights owed to humans were suspended, all to fan the flames of the public outrage at al Qaeda. What is not expressly argued, but should be clear at the most basic level, is how a country that spouts democratic rights and constitutional protections summarily dismiss them when it suits their needs. If the US Administration chooses to suspend these rights when it is beneficial, how does this make them any better than those they seek to combat? Then again, that argument is too complex for Bush and his cronies to have grasped. It only goes to how that you cannot ‘colour by numbers’ such discussions for the politically remedial. And now I can step off of my own soapbox

Kudos, Mr. Mahler for this wonderful addition to the discussion of the constitutionality of Bush’s arguments surrounding his war-time dictatorship.