Sunday, May 17, 2009
Is Islamic terrorism crime or war?
According to the ACLU the terrorist attack on 9/11 was a crime and should be pursued and prosecuted exactly the same as any other crime.
According to conservatives the attack was an act of war by a nonstate actor (Al Qaeda) and should be pursued exactly the same as any other war.
I think it's something different than either--something new. From Al Quaeda's point of view it's exactly a war, albeit an assymetrical one. The problem is that in a war one side can defeat the other, negotiate terms of surrender, and then return any captured prisoners to the other side. That's what we've done in every other war, except for prisoners who committed war crimes. Many of those were executed after being tried by military tribunals.
In war, you can't arrest enemy soldiers on the battlefield, reading each arrestee his or her Miranda rights, and being sure not to use unnecessary force to subdue them.
But that's irrelevant if it isn't a war.
And there is a conservative argument for not making this a war. For one thing, the civilized world's efforts are largely being conducted under police auspices--as when the Brits recently arrested a terrorist cell planning another mass murder. For another, calling it a war elevates the terrorists--it equates them with armies and generals, when in fact they're fanatics and scumbags, to put it mildly. Bush greatly ennobled Bin Ladin with his rhetoric, and then by forgetting who'd attacked us and diverting the forces chasing Bin Ladin to Iraq. It made Bin Ladin a hero, when he should have been a nameless vermin we hunted down and killed on the spot.
I think the uncomfortable fact is that the so-called War on Terror is neither a war nor a police action, but a mix--to be prosecuted as a war, as when we kill Al Qaeda operatives with UAVs in Pakistanm, and at other times as a police action, as when we bust terrorist cells in civilized countries. Indonesia has gotten pretty good at this, by the way. They caught the Islamic fascists who planned the Bali bombings and recently put them to death, which made the peace-loving Balinese people very happy (I know this from personal experience).
So what do we do with dangerous terrorists we've caught? We use military tribunals to try them, just as we did with the Nazi leadership at Nuremberg. They aren't civilians, and treating them like pickpockets or Bernie Maddow is patently ridiculous.
Which means Obama's on the right track, to the dismay of his leftist supporters and relief of his centrist supporters (who are far more numerous, since there aren't enough leftists to elect a dog catcher anywhere but left bastions like Berkeley, CA).