What is "habeas corpus?" It's Latin for "You have the body." What does that have to do with you and me? In human rights legal terms, "You have the body" is shorthand for "You have a prisoner in your custody. Produce him, and explain why you are holding him. If the reason is valid, we will initiate a trial to determine whether he is guilty or innocent, so that, either way, he can get on with his life."
Habeas corpus is the most basic insurance of personal freedom we have as Americans. Without it, a police officer could handcuff you on the street, put you behind bars, and leave you there for days, weeks, months, or years without charging you with a crime. That‘s the kind of story Hollywood makes movies about -- movies that take place in scary foreign countries where things like that can happen to unsuspecting Americans.
Where did habeas corpus come from? In England in the late 1600s, King Charles II was abusing and imprisoning Catholics without legal cause. The public spoke out against these injustices, and Parliament answered them by adopting the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, to increase the liberty of the King's subjects. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the framers of the U.S. Constitution wrote habeas corpus into Article 1, Section 9. It is the only civil right mentioned directly in the Constitution. All others were added as amendments in the Bill of Rights.
Does habeas corpus increase our liberty? It is our liberty. Without it, we would live our lives under the constant fear of being unjustly imprisoned. All of the laws that protect us once we have been accused of a crime -- the right to legal council, the right to a fair trial, etc. -- would be moot if habeas corpus did not exist.
The Constitution states two exceptions under which habeas corpus may be revoked. One is "cases of rebellion," which was used for a time during the Civil War. The other is "invasion during which public safety may require it." The acts that occurred at Pearl Harbor and on September 11th both can be considered invasions, but did the Japanese-American citizens who were sent to internment camps and the Muslims who were sent to Guantanamo Bay represent threats to public safety? And, even if you think they did, was denying them habeas corpus the right thing to do? Did our public safety really require it?
Eventually, the United States apologized to the Japanese Americans. And two days after his inauguration, President Barack Obama granted habeas corpus rights to the Guantanamo detainees, saying he did not feel that maintaining Guantanamo Bay made our country safer. He is right: finding out which detainees are guilty of crimes and trying them for those crimes would make us safer.
What does granting habeas corpus to the Guantanamo detainees mean for you and me? It means that our government stands by its own Constitution and follows the rule of law -- the cornerstone on which America was built. When we deny a legal right to others, we are implying that the right is deniable to anyone -- even ourselves.