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.

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  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on November 18, 2009 - 18:17

    “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?”

    If they are being tried under the auspices of the crimes being an ‘act of war’, wouldn’t a military tribunal be just as legitimate, in terms of legal jurisdiction, as a civilian court? (which I guess depends partially on your answer to my second question below.)

    “Others claim that “terrorists don’t have the same rights we do.” But where in the constitution does that provision stand?”

    My questions in response to this is, are the suspects being tried citizens of this country? And if not, are they constitutionally still afforded the same rights as a citizen?

  2. #2 by Josh on November 18, 2009 - 21:31

    Yes, conservatives who are politically motivated by their silly attacks on Obama are wrong. There are not many of those people, I believe. I hang around VERY conservative individuals, and usually they are reasonable. Usually.

    I once had a Sunday school teacher who was (and still is) extremely conservative. He said things about Obama that was, at least to me, ridiculous. I can also remember him, months later, recanting what he said after realizing how silly it was. He realized he was wrong and wanted to make sure the students knew. I believe his attacks were not meant to “bring down” the President. He honestly thought he knew the truth, and he eventually admitted his error.

    I think that’s what it is like for many Americans. They are honestly trying to figure out what is the right thing to believe. Sometimes they’ll fall for something Sean Hannity said (me included), but if they are honest, they will eventually change their belief once they realize their mistake. Most Americans, conservative or liberal, are honest, but they are also not perfect.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on November 19, 2009 - 03:17

      I’m teaching a course now on Germany between the wars, and note how Hitler got the support of conservatives because he used some of their rhetoric and convinced them that he was on their side. But he was definitely NOT conservative. He was a fascist, with a radical view of how Germany should change. I think often people on the left or right are very forgiving and too quick to believe what extremists “on their side” say, often not seeing that those extremists are really espousing a fundamentally different view.

      So yeah, I think people are honest, and I greatly respect what your Sunday School teacher did — admitting error is a sign of strength, as we all make errors! Oddly, I think some of the rhetoric on the right is entertainment based (appeals to emotions) and that gives it a tendancy to veer to the sensational. Most people can separate that out, but some get caught up in it. I think in Maine we’re pretty good at respecting different opinions; we’re a “blue state” with two moderate Republican Senators. I’m not sure the rest of the country is as reasonable as we are 🙂

      • #4 by classicliberal2 on November 19, 2009 - 04:55

        “I’m teaching a course now on Germany between the wars, and note how Hitler got the support of conservatives because he used some of their rhetoric and convinced them that he was on their side. But he was definitely NOT conservative. He was a fascist, with a radical view of how Germany should change.”

        I was just watching one of the news talk shows, having read this earlier, and some new thoughts occurred to me.

        It would be wrong to call Hitler a “conservative” in the old European sense of the word–that is, pro-monarchist, and it would be wrong to call him merely a “conservative.” The German fascists were, however, profoundly men of the right, and I think you drastically overstate the distance that should be placed between the two. Maybe it’s just the way you worded it. Whatever the case, the fascists–and this is the case in Germany, Spain, Italy, Chile, and everywhere else they’ve cropped up–are reactionaries who could sort of be described as conservatives on freakish amounts of the political equivalent of human growth hormones. They are always allowed to rise to power as agents of the powerful established–hence conservative–social interests (business, banking, church, etc.). The same interests that are always behind conservative causes. I bring this up because of the widespread misconception that fascists are “socialists” (partially because the Nazis called themselves that in order to win votes, but mostly because it’s politically convenient for those who blur that line to try to distance themselves from that sort of politics).

        Bringing things back to the discussion presently on the table (this is what I actually came back here to note), the Bush administration took on strong aspects of outright fascism, some of which I outlined below, and enough of the U.S. was so accepting of it for so long that the top story, for two days now, has been an hysterical protest from “conservative” quarters against trying criminals for their crimes. Why on earth is that even controversial, much less a thing that should provoke such outrage? Too many accepted that fascist viewpoint.

  3. #5 by classicliberal2 on November 19, 2009 - 00:32

    “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?”

    That’s exactly the “policy” Bush unilaterally put into place. “Enemy combatant” was a category invented by the administration that had no basis in U.S. law, yet the administration took the position that anyone, anywhere in the world, including U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, could be so designated by an unelected bureaucrat and lose all rights. They could be kidnapped, thrown into a deep, dark hole, tortured, shipped off to foreign soil to be tortured, tried in secret kangaroo “courts” with secret evidence and predetermined outcomes, and even murdered in secret. Or they could just be left to rot in that deep, dark hole forever. These weren’t theoretical musings–they were actually put into action by Bush, who argued such “powers,” which, of course, exist nowhere outside of squalid Third World dictatorships, were inherent in the presidency–plenary. They weren’t subject to constitution limitations. They weren’t subject to U.S. law. They weren’t subject to review by any other branch of government. This was official policy in those years.

    It has taken years to begin to break this down in the courts, and there will be many more years before it’s all put right again (if it ever is).

    “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.”

    That’s only one aspect of the bigger picture, though. The Bush administration asserted it was above the law and the constitution itself time after time. Bush used presidential signing statements to assert that hundreds of laws passed by congress didn’t apply to he or his administration. The administration asserted, in writing, that it could suspend law and ignore constitutional guarantees–even suspend free speech and press rights. These weren’t theoretical legal opinions–they were adopted as official policy. The administration read our emails, listened in to our phone conversations, snooped through our financial records, all in direct contravention of legal and constitutional limitations. They tried to get congress to pass T.I.P.S., a program that had, as its goal, the recruitment of 1 out of every 25 Americans as government spies on the other 24. The only good thing one can say about that is that at least he sent it to congress. The rest of what I’ve been discussing here didn’t make it that far.

    So this is another case where Obama is left cleaning up the mess left him by the previous administration. Unfortunately, he hasn’t done a very good job of it so far. I’ve long been of the opinion that nothing short of extensive prosecutions of Bush, Cheney, and the rest can put things right. They asserted these things unilaterally. A new administration can say it isn’t going to behave that way, but, without prosecutions, they end up standing as precedent for any future president, and that, unlike the phantom “terrorist threat,” is something we SHOULD fear.

  4. #6 by renaissanceguy on November 19, 2009 - 11:05

    My concern about the trials is different. I think that it could have a harmful effect on our current military operations. Surely many military personnel will be called on to testify. They will need to leave their posts, and they will be distracted from their assigned duties.

    I maintain that it would only be irrational fear if there had not been numerous terrorist attacks by extremist Muslims around the world.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on November 19, 2009 - 13:09

      I doubt this will disrupt the military. They are professional. I don’t think there have been that many terror attacks at all, especially outside of war zones. It’s a dog bites man thing — you hear about them because they are so abnormal and extraordinary. Most Muslims didn’t believe 9-11 could have been done by Muslims because it is so contrary to what the religion teaches. (Of course, bombing abortion clinics is contrary to Christianity – people can always rationalize evil if they really want to).

  5. #8 by Lee on November 19, 2009 - 14:31

    I fall into the camp of being glad this is not handled by a military tribunal. I was actually laughing watching Greater Boston the other night because someone was stating in the interview that they were worried the Sheik could get off on some type of technicality. This is the legal system we supposedly revere and admire, but we are not willing to trust it to handle this situation? We are not a dictatorship and this person was not in my understanding part of a true military (I thought tribunals were for actual ‘army’ type situations but I could be wrong here).

    Terrorism is real, but I believe that if we succumb to living in a panic, or a fear driven state of mind that we have defeated ourselves and lost much of what we value about living in this country.

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