Friday, March 19, 2010

What Liz Cheney Doesn't Know

Referring to Attorney General Eric Holder's testimony before Congress the other day, in which he compared the rights accorded to terrorists accused of murder, to the rights of convicted murderer Charles Manson, Liz Cheney's organization complained that Holder "doesn't know we're at war."   I wonder--considering that the Attorney General of the United States is sworn to uphold the law in the prosecution of any individuals under U.S. jurisdiction, regardless of the state of hostilities between the United States and any other nation or rogue organization--to what extent it should make a difference whether he understands that we are at war.  Or to put it another way, what is it about being at war that Eric Holder supposedly doesn't understand?   And why is it important to you, Liz Cheney, to keep reminding us that we are at war?

The Supreme Court already decided, while Bush was president, and with seven Republicans on the court, that Guantanamo detainees, even though they are foreign nationals, even though they were captured abroad, even though they are held on a base on the island of Cuba, even though they were captured in armed conflict, and even though they are suspected terrorists, have certain constitutional rights.  Even before that decision, the Bush administration had already decided to accord those detainees legal representation and trials before military tribunals, thus recognizing that they have rights.  So when Attorney General Holder recognizes that terror suspects have rights, he is not saying anything new.

When the Attorney General compares terror suspects to one of the most notorious serial killers in history, what exactly is offensive about that comparison?  Perhaps the terror suspect, who believes he is engaged in some kind of a holy crusade, might be offended by debasing what he thinks of as a noble sacrifice to the level of the self-aggrandizing actions of a deranged killer, but why should Bush era apologists and Republican Congressmen be offended?   After all, they are the ones insisting that terrorist acts be treated as acts of war, which in some ways dignifies the status of these cowards to the level of enemy combatants.  These terror suspects probably would agree with Liz Cheney that they should not be thought of as common criminals.

Insistence on the terminology of war as opposed to the terminology of the criminal justice system, therefore, must have more symbolic than substantive meaning.  Whether they are perpetrators of armed warfare, or whether they are common criminals, they still must receive some semblance of a fair trial if they are to be convicted of any crimes, or else they must be held in a status similar to prisoners of war, for the duration of conflict.  Those who like to remind us that we are at war may have an interest in elevating the stature of the enemy, as the existence of a powerful enemy can be used to justify high military expenditures, restrictions on personal liberties, harsh treatment of prisoners, government secrecy, and other manifestations of a militarized society.  At the same time, use of the war metaphor is helpful in dehumanizing the enemy.   So while trying a terrorist in a federal court, and according him the same rights as Charles Manson, may not represent any significant threat to public safety, nevertheless the idea offends those who would prefer to scare the public and demonize the enemy.

What they actually seem to find offensive is the possibility that the Obama administration's actions will reduce the level of fear and paranoia in our society (or as they would probably prefer to call it, the level of preparedness and awareness of external dangers).   Those of us who prefer appeals to hope and change, rather than hate and fear, however, would be much relieved by a diminution in the general level of hostility in our society, as well as greater respect for the rule of law.  Everyone can still agree that those who murder civilians should get their just desserts.  What may have changed, which could explain what Liz Cheney seems so steamed about, is that we no longer believe we must turn to the dark side to accomplish that goal. 

(AP photo composite from Politico)


  1. I think she is talking about the "law enforcement" mentality we saw under Clinton... the same mentality that saw Billy pass up THREE opportunities to capture or kill bin Laden because he didn't think we had enough "evidence."

  2. Do you really think we should be going around killing anyone based on mere suspicion that they are the target? Wasn't that the kind of "evidence" Clinton was talking about? And if it's fair to criticize Clinton for blowing opportunities to capture or kill bin Laden, what about Bush? Bush had seven whole years, supposedly with the gloves off, to get the job done, but couldn't even manage to find bin Laden. So let's give the law enforcement mentality a chance to work, because we really can't say that the war mentality was any more successful.

  3. OSL? Blow him up. Even if you are against blowing people up (Obama's doing it daily in Pakistan) Sudan offered to turn OBL over to us but Billy Boy said "no" because he was afraid he couldn't find the "evidence" to convict him. That was a few years before 9-11.

    Law enforcement mentality got us 9-11 so no thanks.