Michael Ratner, the civil liberties lawyer, was running along the Hudson River on Sept. 11, 2001, when planes hit the World Trade Center towers. He was pretty sure he knew what was happening. “Someone is trying to kill all of us,” Ratner thought.
The attorney hustled north toward his home in Greenwich Village. Like other New Yorkers, he was stunned by the attacks and furious at the attackers — emotions that briefly led to a personal and professional quandary.
Retaliating for assaults on the trade center and Pentagon and the hijacking of a fourth airliner, the United States routed the Taliban government of Afghanistan and began sending foreign terrorism suspects to Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba for interrogation.
Geographically, and legally, the detainees were in no-man’s land — stuck in a system, Ratner said, based more on “executive fiat” (the executive in this case being President George W. Bush) than rule of law.
From the outset, Ratner viewed the Guantanamo situation as problematic — a snub of the U.S. Constitution and a retreat from legal principles established centuries ago in the Magna Carta.
In his new question-and-answer book, “Guantanamo: What the World Should Know” (Chelsea Green Publishing, $15), Ratner tells interviewer Ellen Ray that the arrangement is nothing less than “totalitarian.” He adds: “The president can do what he wants, acting as a dictator.”
So there was plenty to make a guy like Ratner — who has been committed to human rights work since he was a law student at Columbia University in the 1960s — feel motivated and ready to tangle with the power structure again.
But he was a New Yorker who lived through Sept. 11. When he contemplated aiding Guantanamo suspects, Ratner had doubts. If prisoners at “Camp Delta” (a high-security prison at Guantanamo) had anything remotely to do with the terrorist attacks — forget about it, he thought.
“The idea that I would actually represent someone who bombed the World Trade Center didn’t sit so well with me,” Ratner said during a conversation in his living room on a recent afternoon. “It didn’t seem what I wanted to do.”
A human rights case Michael Ratner might not want to take? For years, he had tackled some of the toughest.
Ratner, 61, president of the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in Manhattan, filed suit on behalf of prisoners after the 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility. He investigated the 1973 killing of freelance journalist Charles Horman in Chile — an episode that prompted the movie Missing. With fellow CCR attorneys, Ratner challenged Reagan-era foreign policy in Central America and, a decade later, the right of President George H.W. Bush to go to war with Iraq without congressional authorization. He has represented Black Panthers, Puerto Rican independence activists and Haitian boat people.
And, predictably, before long, he signed on for Guantanamo, too.
In their limbo state, Ratner said, Guantanamo inmates faced indefinite detention (U.S. officials say prisoners will not be kept longer than necessary) and had no access to the legal process. That was especially troubling, Ratner said. Even for foreign detainees, he said, “the American courthouse has to be open.”
Supreme Court ruling
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo Bay prisoners and U.S. citizens held by the military as “enemy combatants” are entitled to individual hearings in federal courts to contest their imprisonment.
And Defense Department officials recently promised a periodic review of each of the approximately 600 detainees at Camp Delta. Meanwhile, more than 100 prisoners have been released — including two British citizens represented by Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The men, Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, complained of harsh treatment, Ratner said: solitary confinement, lengthy interrogations while squatting with hands chained between their legs, doses of loud music and strobe lights, menacing dogs, a phony video that purported to show them with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. “What are you doing to human dignity?” Ratner asked:
He rejects the use of torture under any circumstances. Coercive tactics — like those allegedly used at Guantanamo and in Iraq — generally don’t work, he said. Also a worry, he said, is that torture corrupts the tormenters — and the moral climate. “It’s not so easy to put the genie back in the bottle.”
Helping the ‘little guy’
His own moral compass was calibrated long ago by his father, owner of a concrete and building supply company in Cleveland.
Harry Ratner taught his three children — Michael has a brother, Bruce, the developer who wants to bring the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn, and a sister, Ellen, a Fox News Channel commentator and founder of the Talk Radio News Service — to respect everyone, regardless of station, and lend a hand to those who didn’t get the breaks in life.
Often, Ratner said, his father would spend time with workers.”He was very close to the little guy. He’d always put on his boots and go into the trenches where they were pouring concrete.” .
Stay close to the little guy — the advice stuck. After law school, Ratner considered a corporate job. But making a difference proved more appealing than making a bundle. Ratner hasn’t changed his mind — even if his efforts are not always cheered. When CCR took the Guantanamo cases, Ratner said, hate mail poured in — “real bad hate mail.”
People were angry after Sept. 11. So was he. Still, Ratner said, rage could not trump the nation’s values. Basic rights had to be protected or the peril to America would be greater than any posed by terrorists. “This is a moment to stand tall,” he said.