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National security vs. our national soul
By Cathy Young | September 25, 2006
AS THE DEBATE continues over rules for the trial and interrogation
of suspected terrorists, we need to understand what's at stake: both
our national security and our national soul.
Opinions on issues involving detainees are not neatly divided along
ideological lines. Famed liberal law professor Alan Dershowitz has
raised the possibility of having judges issue ``torture warrants" in
the face of imminent terrorist threats. Senator John McCain, the
conservative Republican of Arizona, has taken a firm stance against
what is euphemistically known as ``coercive interrogation."
Nor is this an issue of power-hungry fascistic sadists on one side
and noble-minded humanitarians on the other. Millions of decent people
believe that we live in desperate times that call for desperate measures.
But that doesn't make them right. Throughout history, people with
good intentions have done a lot of harm.
One stark reminder of the danger of abuses in the war on terrorism
is the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen. Arar was
detained last year at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New
York on suspicion of terrorist ties and taken to Jordan and then
Syria, where he alleges he was brutally tortured during 10 months
of detention. His arrest may have been based on mistaken information
given to US authorities by the Canadian police. Those who invoke
threats to our survival should ask themselves whether this is the
kind of thing we want on our conscience.
Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin deplores the fact that in Indonesia,
three Christian men accused of terrorist acts toward Muslims were
sentenced to death after a trial in which human-rights activists
say they were denied due process. Yet Malkin and many others on her
side are likely to decry concern with due process for terrorist suspects
in American custody as namby-pamby liberalism. Admittedly, no suspects
held by the United States have been executed. But indefinite detention
and brutal interrogation techniques without due process are nothing
to be proud of, either.
The unease over detainee issues in conservative ranks was demonstrated
by the initial rebellion among some Senate Republicans against the
White House, but it is also evident among the commentariat . Recently,
I attended a symposium at the conservative American Enterprise Institute
on the state of national security.
The day's last panel, on law and order, was made up of three war-on-terrorism
hawks: Heather Mac Donald , a researcher and writer at the Manhattan
Institute; former deputy attorney general John Yoo, and Cornell University
law professor Jeremy Rabkin.
All three deplored what they considered an excessive hysteria about
the maltreatment of detainees resulting both from knee-jerk hostility
to President Bush and from liberal softness. All three stressed that
we are in a perilous situation, facing a faceless and stateless enemy
with no visible command and no combatant uniforms. Our response,
they argued, should be viewed in the context of this threat.
Yet it was Mac Donald, no one's idea of a softie, who made an important
and alarming point: ``The very fact that detainees are violating
the rules of war, that they are not wearing uniforms or any identifying
insignia, makes the possibility of factual error in who you pick
up much more severe than when you are capturing a traditional uniformed
In her view, the administration should have put ``a lot more due
process early on to make the factual determination" that we are holding
the right people (though, she added, by military rather than civilian
judges). She declared that human rights activists ``have it right
when they complain that detainees in the war on terror are facing
the prospect of indefinite detention," and dismissed as ``disingenuous" the
assertion that every war is of indefinite duration when it starts.
Mac Donald's argument was primarily pragmatic: measures to safeguard
the innocent, she said, would have boosted support for the war on
terrorism both at home and abroad. But the moral issues are equally
Several speakers at the event noted that in times of national danger,
America has always curtailed civil liberties in ways that would have
been unacceptable otherwise (such as the internment of Japanese-Americans
). Yet, if anything, that's an argument for greater vigilance against
embarking on that road -- paved though as it is with good intentions.