My Friend Michael

Posted in: Human Rights

We lost a great light last week.

On a Sunday morning in mid-November, 2001, when September 11 was more lived reality than political symbol, my wife Sandra Babcock and I were reading the paper at our kitchen table in Minneapolis. A few days earlier, President Bush had announced plans to prosecute suspected terrorists in military commission proceedings that bore no resemblance to anything we might charitably call a trial. The Sunday paper summarized the state of play.

“Well, this is fucked up,” I said, looking up from the pages. “What are we going to do?”

“We should call Michael Ratner,” she answered.

A legendary human rights lawyer and the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, Michael shared our disgust with President Bush’s plan. We scheduled a call. Michael brought in Steven Watt, a young Scottish lawyer who had recently joined the staff at CCR. I brought in Clive Stafford Smith, a friend of many years from our work on behalf of men and women on death row. That first call was followed by many others, and over the course of the next two months, a very small team of lawyers and academics conceived and refined the legal strategy that eventually became Rasul v. Bush, the opening courtroom salvo against indefinite, unlawful detention at Guantanamo and elsewhere in the so-called war on terror.

Michael passed away last week as a result of complications from cancer. He was 72. Praise for his life and work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Nation, and elsewhere. But it was Baher Azmy, the current legal director at the Center, who said it best. In a note to the many lawyers working for the men still imprisoned at Guantanamo, Baher described Michael as “the most visionary, principled, strategic, fearless, passionate—and deeply humane and humble—advocate I have ever come across and likely ever will.”

I almost cannot understand how someone can be so vigorous in his challenge to power and yet so sweet and generous and unassuming—except to say that in his private life he modeled the world he wanted to see—one driven by love and kindness and respect for human dignity. To me and so many others of his generation, and especially to the countless young lawyers at CCR and beyond, he was a hero.”

—Baher Azmy

It was the extraordinary combination of personal humility and professional zeal that set Michael so far apart. He was a fighter like none I have ever seen, with an indomitable will and warrior’s heart. Yet he was gentle and decent and funny and kind. Since his death, the world has honored him for the many battles he fought, including especially our victory in Rasul. But I have not been thinking much about victory since Michael’s passing. In this as in all things, we celebrate battles by ignoring the casualties.

Michael suffered for the work he did. He loved his work and believed in it, but it took a toll on him and his family. He had serious reservations about the Guantanamo litigation, not because he doubted whether it was the right thing to do, but because he knew that attacks on power never go unanswered. In the long arc of American history, rights have never been freely bestowed by the many to the few, or by the powerful to the weak. Instead, they are hoarded and locked away, as though sharing them might dilute their worth. In the beginning, our work was deeply unpopular. Even longtime allies withheld their support, and all the usual suspects lined up to take their shots.

Michael did not waver. He saw clearly what most never glimpse—that dignity withheld from some is denied to all, and that we cannot cast a single person beyond the pale without shrinking the circle for the rest. For that insight, so simple and therefore so incendiary, he was attacked. Not just in Rasul, but in case after case, for on every occasion, he spoke for those who had no voice and stood with those who stood alone. And for that, he was made to pay.

In time, when the principles he fought to establish are taught as settled truth rather than scorned as wicked heresy, the country will honor his legacy and recall his name. But today, not tomorrow, we should remember the sacrifices he made.

At moments like this, it is customary to say we should all just keep going, and that the best way to honor Michael’s memory is to continue his struggles. Yes of course, as if it could be any other way for the people in Michael’s orbit. But there is a time for work. For now, forgive me if I pause a moment to grieve in a suddenly much darker night.

Michael Ratner: 1943-2016

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