Archive for November 18th, 2009

Irrational Fear

The decision to try Khalid Sheik Muhammad in New York has generated some controversy by a few on the right who have argued that this is a disastrous decision.   They would prefer a military tribunal.   The problem is that the legalities around this case point to the necessity of a trial and not towards some kind of military alternative.   We’re supposed to follow the law, right?

Not to some on the right, though I suspect for many the outrage is disingenuous.   They want to generate irrational fear in order to attack the Obama administration.   If you listen to the “outrage,” they posit all sorts of scenarios.   Some claim that American courts are somehow ineffective and won’t  be able to do justice (they are too “PC” or give groups like the ACLU too much “clout.” )   Those criticisms betray a total distrust of the American legal system.     If we can’t trust our legal system to try criminals, we have far greater problems than the venue of one suspect!

Others claim that “terrorists don’t have the same rights we do.”   But where in the constitution does that provision stand?  And don’t you have to presume guilt before you can make that kind of claim?   In other words, if we go down that route, what kind of precedent are we setting?   The state can unilaterally deny rights by declaring someone an enemy of the state?  Gee, that worked well for the USSR and dictatorships world wide, but do we want to start going down that slippery slope?   Others claim we are “at war.”   Well, we do have military operations overseas, but Congress has not declared a war, and such rhetoric is more political hyperbole than reality.

The most common claims are blatant fear mongering.   It will make New York a target!   It will be expensive!  It will cause emotional distress for New Yorkers (a claim I think New Yorkers should reject as insulting to their mental stability)!   He’ll infiltrate the prisons and create recruits!  In short, the effort is to make it sound like we should be afraid of allowing our legal system to function; out of fear, we should abandon principles.

First, terrorism is a real threat, but not something to we have to fear.   Even 9-11 did limited damage, and it’s been eight years and they haven’t been able to mount a serious second attack in the US.   That could change tomorrow, but the idea that massive attacks could truly damage the country seems remote at best.   Second, the idea that having this trial in New York will somehow inspire al qaeda to hit New York again seems odd, especially if the claim is that they have been wanting to attack again but we’ve prevented that.   I doubt this adds to their motivation.    Finally, the idea he’ll go into the prisons and win scores of recruits is plain silly — he probably won’t have that kind of access and he will be watched.  He may even get the death penalty.

The real problem is that back in 2001 we put aside the Geneva Convention and our constitution to create a legally questionable alternate system of incarceration and justice at Guantanamo Bay.   If it would have been short term, that may have worked.  But can you really keep suspects for years — many who already have been shown to be innocent — without any kind of legal status?   This kind of issue comes up because the Bush Administration wanted to make their own rules regarding the so-called ‘war on terror,’ and in so doing veered into unexplored legal territory.   The Obama Administration has to untangle that mess.   For some captured in Afghanistan, military tribunals may function well, but in a case like this a trial is the only legally viable option.   There is no reason to hurl aside our principles and rule of law out of irrational fear.

But things get even more bizarre when one sees that an even smaller group get in a huff that President Obama bowed to the Japanese emperor.    Someone forgot to tell the President that bowing is not allowed in Japan when you greet people!    But let’s assume that Obama did bow out of courtesy to his position in Japan — the claim made by those who criticize him.   So what?   How much does that add to the budget?   What harm does that do the national interest?  What does showing respect for others cost us?

These same people don’t like that we “apologize” for errors of the past.   We should never admit a mistake (as has been pointed out by ‘classicliberal’ in comments to the last post, President Bush famously could not recall making any mistakes when asked).   In other words, we should fear admitting errors, apologizing, or showing respect for others.  We should fear showing any weakness.

What would we think of an individual who acted that way?   We would consider such a person an arrogant prick, someone with such low self-esteem that they don’t want to show any weakness, someone so afraid of what others think of them that they put on a show of false bravado.   We tell our children it takes strength to apologize, that we should show respect to others, and that it’s OK to make and admit mistakes.  But as a country we’re afraid to do so?   What exactly do these people think will happen?   We’ll lose our claim to be the ultimate superpower above the rules?   That’s been lost already.

There is no harm done to the country by any of these things, none whatsoever.  The attacks on Obama for “apologizing” or “bowing” are silly.    I mean, President Bush has been caught kissing the King of Saudi Arabia — you do things to show respect in other cultures that you might not do here.  No big deal.   Most people think it’s good when America does not try to act like a pompous jerk on the world stage.

The fears of terrorism are, to be sure, more grounded in reality.   But ultimately the last ten years have taught us that it is hard to hit the US with a terror attack, the post 9-11 panic was overblown, and while we cannot be absolutely secure, we have more to fear from car accidents than from terrorists.   As Benjamin Franklin noted, anyone who would trade freedom for security deserves neither.   We have a lot of problems as a country; irrational fear will only make them worse.