William Rivers Pitt | Michael Ratner Is Gone; You’re Still Here

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC. (Photo: Jonathan McIntosh)Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on January 11, 2006. (Photo: Jonathan McIntosh)

“A permanent war abroad means permanent anger against the United States by those countries and people that will be devastated by US military actions. Hate will increase, not lessen, and the terrible consequences of that hate will be used, in turn, as justification for more restrictions on civil liberties in the United States.”—Michael Ratner in 2002

Every so often — far too rarely but now and again — a hero comes down the mountain to point a bold finger at those who would lead humanity to rack and ruin, stands in their path and says, “No.”

Michael Ratner was one such. He left us on Wednesday, and we are all the poorer for his absence. He was tireless in his devotion, utterly fearless in the face of the death threats that came as a result of his work. He raged against the dying of the light, and in doing so changed the world entire.

Mr. Ratner was an attorney who made it his business to take on so-called lost causes. His list of accomplishments and attempts would shame a saint. These are but a few:

  • He was President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and a president of the National Lawyers Guild.
  • His first case with CCR was representing prisoners injured and killed in the Attica prison uprising.
  • He successfully argued before the Supreme Court that Guantánamo detainees had the right to challenge the legality of their detention, a victory that freed hundreds of prisoners. In short, he salvaged habeas corpus.
  • He sued Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes over the torture at Abu Ghraib, and sued two private military firms over their involvement in that torture.
  • He represented Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
  • He issued a legal challenge to the PATRIOT Act.
  • He represented Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was sent to Syria by the US, where he was subsequently tortured.

The full list would melt your machine, but these are a fair sample to let you know the measure of the man.

If you happen to be one of the many people who have never heard Michael Ratner’s name, ask yourself why. Those who speak genuine truth to power don’t get reality shows or soft seats on the news network talk shows, and that is a natural fact. Attorney Ratner got late nights behind desks covered in yellow legal pads and paperwork lit by the lonely glow of a tired lamp. He spent his life for the sake of others, for the small against the huge and he slew a few Goliaths in his travels.

The plodding durability of devotion. I turned that phrase when observing anti-pipeline activists here in New Hampshire not long ago. There is no glory in it, no fame in fighting what usually proves to be a losing battle. Yours is the surety that you always tried, always cared and that hell yeah, you won a few here and there. That ain’t peanuts. That is the sum and substance of a life well spent.

Michael Ratner has gone back up the mountain. He will not be coming down again. The tasks he would have gladly undertaken now fall to us, to you and me. To honor him, we must not fail him. He was a hero, but there is a funny thing about heroes. Properly inspired, they can pop up everywhere. Even in your bathroom mirror.

Fair winds at your back, counselor. Thank you.