What's the frequency?

Nearly threw a punch at a commuter on the train the other evening.

The train was packed as usual, standing room only. There were perhaps a dozen or more of us jammed together at the end of the car. I had a spot at the top of the steps.

Nearly the entire way from Union Station to the first express stop at BWI, one voice pontificated loudly on why George W. Bush is the Greatest President Ever.

Tall guy. Quintessential blue suit. Refined features. Pudgy. Frat boy. Heard him that he is a former Navy guy, now with a contractor assigned to federal jobs. He looked like any number of people who work for beltway bandits, perhaps in defense or homeland security, one of those companies bellying up to the federal trough.

For a good 20 minutes he prattled on, parroting the GOP talking points:

Thank god there's as real man in the White House. Kicking Saddam's ass was the right thing to do. The war is going swimmingly well. Nobody should criticize the government unless they served in the military. Joe and Valerie Plame are traitors trying to make a buck.

Torture is good. What's wrong with torturing somebody who wants to kill us? They ought to put a gun to a terrorist's head, and if he doesn't talk blow his brains out. I guarantee the next one will talk.

Dan Rather is a weasel who deserved what he got. He never admitted that the military records were forged...

That was my breaking point. "What about the Niger memo? The White House knew that it was a forgery, and they've never come clean about it," I said. "The whole war was based on lies and forgeries."

He shot me a look. "Didja ever hear of bad intelligence?

Oh please, I snorted. Do you think Dan Rather personally aquired those documents?

Him: "Baa...baa....baa...."

"Think what you want about Dan Rather," I said. "He stepped up to the plate and accepted responsibility, apologized, and resigned. What has Bush done? Shouldn't the President at least meet the same standard of integrity as a news anchor?"

The guy never had a chance to answer. He got off the train at BWI. Good riddance.

Fucking asshole. He's probably snooping on my cell phone calls now.


Enemy of the State

The case of Jose Padilla should be of grave concern to every American.

Also known as Abdullah al-Muhajir, the 35-year-old Brooklyn native was locked up for more than three years at a military prison in South Carolina -- for most of that time without criminal charges, without access to a lawyer, without contact with his family.

Padilla was detained on May 8, 2002, at Chicago's O'Hare airport upon his arrival on a plane from Pakistan. According to reports, he was detained on a warrant issued in New York as a material witness to the attacks of 9/11.

After having him in custody for a month, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft dramatically announced the capture while on a road trip to Moscow, calling Padilla a "known terrorist" who met with Al Qaeda and was "exploring a plan" to build and detonate a radioactive dirty bomb.

The apprehension of Padilla "disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot," Ashcroft said, although no other conspirators who may have been involved in a plot have ever been named or described.

Bush's strategy was to detain Padilla indefinitely in a legal oblivion by declaring him an "illegal enemy combatant," and as such not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

Facing an imminent review by the Supreme Court, and a possible smackdown on its fascist practices, the Bush administration scrambled to transfer Padilla out of military custody with charges that he "conspired to murder, kidnap and maim people overseas."

No further mention of dirty bombs, no mention of attacks within the U.S., no mention of meeting with Al Qaeda, no mention of 9/11.

Granted, Jose Padilla may not be a nice person. The media invariably describes him as a former gang member. Padilla was also a small-time criminal, and spent time in prison. He may even have committed crimes and deserves to stay in jail. That isn't the point.

All American citizens have fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution -- even unpleasant people we don't like; habeas corpus, due process, counsel with an attorney, the right to hear charges confront the evidence and witnesses against us.

If Padilla committed a crime, he should be charged and have his day in court. That's what any of us expect as a basic right.

Padilla is not the only American citizen held in this Kafkaesque legal limbo. Louisiana-born Yaser Hamdi, another enemy combatant, was captured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that there may be 200 or more Americans in similar circumstances.

The true tests of the Constitution are the objectionable cases. Polite chit-chat doesn't need First Amendment protection, offensive speech does. The important cases are always extremes that test and explore limits -- gun owners and bible thumpers and marching Nazis and porn peddlers and intelligent designers. These are the cases that define the rights and liberties of every citizen.

If Padilla can be declared a national security risk and detained incommunicado for more than three years -- without charges, without a lawyer, without due process -- then so can any citizen. Maybe you, but mostly I'm thinking about me.

Defending the rights of Padilla defends the rights of us all.