It's not often you hear Latin at a rock concert, much less the words "habeas corpus." Yet Bruce Springsteen has invoked this old Latin writ -- which lets prisoners get into court to challenge their confinement -- in stadiums across the country on his latest tour.
Habeas corpus is just one of the great American traditions that Bruce thinks are in danger. We've still got cheeseburgers, French fries, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry and motorcycles, he says, but now America has also become famous for rendition, illegal wiretapping, voter suppression, and the rollback of civil rights.
When Bruce listed this un-American conduct at a recent Madison Square Garden concert, we shuddered with recognition. At the Brennan Center for Justice -- named for another Jersey guy who cared about working people and the constitution, the late Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. -- we've been working on just this set of issues in an effort to make good on America's dual promise of justice and democracy.
Yet increasingly, like the narrator in Springsteen's "Livin' in the Future" -- the song that followed the speech in concert -- we've seen the ship Liberty sail away. During the past six years, the United States has deprived hundreds of prisoners of habeas corpus at Guantánamo, claiming that just because they are citizens of other countries they can be locked away forever without a hearing before a judge.
The United States has also established secret prisons run by the CIA where people disappear for years without a trace, sometimes never to appear again. Many of these prisoners have been tortured using techniques like waterboarding that America used to prosecute as a war crime.
In addition, the President has claimed the power to eavesdrop on the private conversations and email communications of American citizens even though Congress has expressly prohibited him from doing so.
It's all enough to make you think, like the "Livin' in the Future" narrator, that you hear the "sinkin' sound of somethin' righteous goin' under."
But, thankfully, as he always does, Springsteen gives us reason to hope. The song is about living in the future, where "none of this has happened yet." Like many of Springsteen's best songs, it straddles two themes. It's an acknowledgment that the unthinkable can happen: we can wake up one morning in a futuristic dystopia where rights we thought were sacred have been eliminated. But it's also a wake-up call to make sure the future he warns about doesn't happen.
The Boss has started by singing about it. Now the rest of us need to do something about it.
New Jersey native Rebekah Diller and Jonathan Hafetz are counsels in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.