Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Are we in a war on terror? And what do we do with the UndieBomber?
Conservatives and liberals both try to treat the so-called "war on terror" in familiar ways. The left wants the terrorists treated as criminals; the right wants the terrorists treated as enemy soldiers.
Conservatives accuse liberals of underestimating the gravity of the situation, and of thinking if we just talk to them real nice they'll settle down and agree to talk things over with us.
Liberals accuse conservatives of exaggerating the gravity of the situation, and of thinking we need to surrender all our rights in exchange for the promise of safety, and of wanting to torture prisoners.
Both fail to recognize that this is a new situation--one made possible by a world linked via the Internet and full of readily available people-killing technology that lets one determined fanatic kills hundreds or even thousands of people.
John Wilkes Booth probably had the same psychological profile as the Nigerian UndieBomber. But all Booth was able to do in 1865 was kill one man (albeit the most important human being in America). The UndieBomber could have killed hundred and cost the country many, many millions of dollars when all the ramifications played out. And we still have the spectre of one of them setting off a dirty bomb in Times Square, or releasing a cloud of anthrax out of the door of a light plane flying over, say, downtown Chicago.
And today's John Wilkes Booths can morph into terrorists all by themselves, in their parents' basement, in front of a computer.
So this is new; the stakes are higher, relative to the number of enemies required to seriously harm us; and the old paradigms are inadequate.
The leftist "police response" parameter doesn't work because most of the terrorist acts were trying to prevent are internationally mediated, even they aren't entirely generated abroad. And since the terrorists' main bases are in failing or failed states (including parts of states that aren't under federal control, as in Pakistan's tribal areas), we can't always depend on cooperation between our police departments and their counterparts abroad.
At the same time we've gotten, are getting, and will get enormous help from police departments here and abroad.
It's understandable to try to deal with new things using old responses. They say generals are forever trying to fight the last war, ignoring how the new one is different.
So--it's not countries attacking us. Bush decided it was Iraq. He didn't get that it was non-state actors. But it wasn't criminals attacking us either. It was, again, non-state actors belonging to a loose semi-organization operating in both failed states and in highly organized ones as well--like the UK and Germany.
Nor was it "terrorists." The IRA isn't trying to kill us. The ETA isn't trying to kill us. Nor the Tamil Tigers, nor Uighur activists, nor anybody else but Muslim extremists--mostly members of the Wahhabi fundamentalist sect. And since they seek to dominate every aspect of society, control all mass communications, and evoke atavistic tribal loyalties in their followers. This is the essence of fascism. So they're Islamofascists. And our "war" that isn't exactly a war is--whatever it is--not with "terrorism." It's with Islamofascism. And by the way all the world's moderate Muslims are in an even more existential conflict with these folks.
It's not a war but it's sure a conflict. I'd call it our conflict with the Islamofascists who chose to pick a fight with us. Yeah, yeah, "war on terror" is simpler. But it's way wrong. It lets Muslim fanatics off the hook in a fit of PCness even the Republicans haven't escaped. And calling it a "war" led to us attacking a country instead of the people who attacked us. That's even wronger.
So. It's not a war because they're not a country. It's not terrorism because it's only Muslim fanatic terrorists, not any other kind of terrorist.
And what we do about it...well, that's complicated. Much of it has to be done in the dark, through the CIA and other secretive branches of our government. We have to fly UAVs into countries whose citizens object mightily to our UAVs flying into their countries, and we have to kill Islamofascists there who are trying to kill us. We have to make deals with bad guys in some places in order to support our efforts. We have to send solidiers in harm's way sometimes, as in Afghanistan. We also have to do peaceful things there as well, but it's no use to build a school if your enemies come in the next day and blow it up. We also have to learn who they are and why they think what they think. We have to combat their propaganda with ours--something we haven't done well at all.
Bush called them "unlawful combatants." And so they are, and as such they fall outside the Geneva Convention. That doesn't mean we should torture them. Probably doesn't work 99% of the time anyway if it's information you're after.
Here's the conundrum, though. It ennobles them to treat them like soldiers--even unlawful ones. They think they're soldiers in the Army of the Lord, and martyrs when we kill them. But their acts--if they aren't American citizens, and especially if they aren't on American soil--aren't those of soldiers.
Still, they're not criminals either, in the ordinary sense of them breaking the law either for personal gain or because they're crazy. But they're not waging war against us on behalf of another country either. So that makes them unlawful combatants, just like Bush said (NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman once observed that something isn't automatically wrong if Bush said it (just usually)).
So what do you do with unlawful combatants? You try them in military tribunals, without publicity, just as we did Nazi agents who entered America in WWII to commit sabotage.
That's what I'd do with the UndieBomber. He's an unlawful combatant. I wouldn't execute him--don't make martyrs. Try him without publicity--without anyone ever hearing one word coming out of his mouth. Then put him in a SuperMax prison cell for the rest of his life. I don't say this out of opposition to the death penalty. But in this case our goals are best achieved by basically disappearing him.
I realize this puts me uncomfortably into Cheney territory...pretty odd for an Obama voter like me.
Oh, and we should indeed close Guantanamo. It's based on a legal fiction that's both ridiculous and disproved. It would make a terrific resort, and make us good money--and we could offer Cubans jobs in the resort. Wouldn't that grind the Castro regime's grits? We could get some of the money that now goes to Cancun.
And we have Supermax prisons here, from which I seriously doubt anyone will ever escape.
So we go after them using ours and others' police forces and military and secret operations. We use them all. And the ones we find we kill or capture. And the ones we capture we generally disappear.
Enemy combatants don't belong in our criminal justice system. BTW it also helps us get other countries' police forces to help us if we don't execute them. At the same time we must not allow them any communication with the outside world. That's some punishment, I'd say.