'Enemy Combatant' Treatment


On this week's episode of The 4400 (which I watched last night on TiVo), two guys are arrested while trying to drive a truck bomb into a community of returnees (people who have come back to Earth after disappearing for years). As he tackles and handcuffs one of the bombers, a Department of Homeland Security agent (Tom Baldwin) informs him that he's an "enemy combatant" because he's guilty of terrorism. "You do not have the right to remain silent," the cop says with satisfaction. "You have no rights." (Or words to that effect.)

In the U.S. depicted by The 4400, apparently, the Supreme Court never stepped in to curtail the practice of unilaterally stripping Americans of their rights. Indeed, the authority to classify people as "enemy combatants" apparently has devolved from the president to cops on the street, and the category can include homegrown terrorists as well as Islamic fanatics. Most troubling of all, the scene suggests that viewers should be gratified by this streamlining of legal procedures.

An earlier episode seems to send a similar message. When a TV journalist starts stirring up public sentiment against the returnees, the chief of the local Homeland Security office (Peter Coyote) threatens her producer by noting that he no longer needs a court order to conduct searches or seize assets. The journalist is a despicable, hypocritical demagogue, while the bureaucrat is highly sympathetic.

Is it too much to hope that these references to the erosion of civil liberties are building toward a denouement that shows how power can corrupt even the most likable law enforcement officer? Maybe that's one of the lessons the extraterrestrials are trying to teach us.