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Terrorists = Criminals

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Everyone is talking, with good reason, about the lengthy article by Jane Mayer in this week’s New Yorker, which describes, in excruciating detail, the “debate” raging within the White House over whether “Terror suspects” are or are not criminals (and thus, are or are not entitled to constitutional protection). Mayer does a pretty good job of describing the various points of view, but one wishes she would get to the point of the article, which is that Attorney General Eric Holder finds himself assailed and unpopular because of his belief in *gasp* the rule of law.

I especially liked Ms. Mayer’s opening:

On December 5th, several hundred people gathered in Foley Square, in lower Manhattan, and withstood a drenching rainstorm for two hours in order to send a message to Attorney General Eric Holder. A JumboTron, set up by the protesters, played clips of Holder’s recent testimony before Congress, in which he explained his decision to hold the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—the self-proclaimed planner of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—and four co-conspirators in the colonnaded federal courthouse flanking the square, rather than in a military commission at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Members of the crowd shouted at the screen: “Holder’s gotta go!”; “Arrogant bastard!”; “Communist!”Greg Manning, whose wife, Laura, was severely burned in the World Trade Center attacks, stood before the crowd and said, “Thousands are already dead because of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s choices. We do not want to see . . . hundreds of thousands dead because of the Attorney General’s choices.”

Andrew McCarthy, the former Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney who led the prosecution of the 1993 World Trade Center attacks, also gave a speech, declaring that Holder didn’t “understand what rule of law has always been in wartime.” He said, “It’s military commissions. It’s not to wrap our enemies in our Bill of Rights.”

“Traitor!” someone shouted.

Here one sees quite clearly the histrionics and appeals to emotion on which the “right-wing” apparently prides itself. It’s worth noting that these are the exact same arguments put forth by Ms. Sarah Palin in her infamous “Tea Party” speech a few days ago. A transcript hasn’t found its way online, but the gist of her remarks were that we oughtn’t give our “enemies” the benefit of the “freedoms” which they “hate” – and this includes such basic ideas such as due process, trial by jury and so forth. She even made the absurd assertion that only “US citizens” are entitled to constitutional protection – a remark which, I’m sure, made legal immigrants the country over squirm in discomfort.

I suppose it wouldn’t be worth pointing out that the Constitution makes no mention of “citizens” or even “persons” – theoretically, the rights it enumerates are universal. The language states that “Congress shall make no law that…”, which, if one were to take an inclusionist standpoint, would apply to all persons, regardless of nationality or jurisdiction. But, of course, this would make war unconstitutional, so most people conveniently forget these clauses.

Ms. Mayer gives the “Republican” talking points much space in her article, quoting a charming individual as calling Mr. Holder a “Communist”, giving Mr. Giuliani room to call Mr. Holder’s suggestion that “terror suspects” be tried as civilians as “almost criminal” – even quoting one protester as demanding they “lynch Holder!”

The rest of the article delves into the mess of organizing trials for these suspects. The centerpiece trial – that of Khalid Sheik Mohammad, suspected of “masterminding” the 9/11 attacks – would be thrown out of any civilian court immediately. Mr. Mohammad was severely tortured, including being waterboarded an astonishing 183 consecutive times. Several other suspects can claim similar mistreatment. In a country which follows the rule of law, confessions extracted via torture are illegitimate and cannot be used as evidence.

Also, no state wants to be the site of the trial – certainly not New York, where the attacks occurred. Mayor Bloomberg finally put the kibosh on that suggestion when it became clear such a move would be “political suicide”. Other mayors and governors have come to the same conclusion.

Ms. Mayer gets points for mentioning this inconvenient fact, which I’m sure the military commissions hard-ons wish would simply go away:

For all the tough rhetoric of the Bush Administration, it prosecuted many more terror suspects as criminals than as enemy combatants. According to statistics compiled by New York University’s Center on Law and Security, since 2001 the criminal courts have convicted some hundred and fifty suspects on terrorism charges. Only three detainees—all of whom were apprehended abroad—were convicted in military commissions at Guantánamo.

Oops.

It’s difficult to imagine the mindset of those who demand extra-legal military commissions for terrorism suspects. India, Pakistan, Britain, Spain and a raft of other countries that have far worse terror problems than we do  find civilian trials quite enough. India, for instance, prosecuted a 26/11 gunman right in Mumbai, meters away from where he carried out his deadly attack. Furthermore, constantly declaring that “we’re at war” and “terrorists are enemy soldiers” ends up giving these criminals far more legitimacy than they deserve. Consider, for a moment, which would be better for your self-esteem, and for the strength of your organization: being treated as a common criminal, or having the country which you attempted to attack thrown into a tizzy and creating special legal tribunals to deal with your “threat”.

If one could follow the “tough-guy” mentality toward combating terrorism to its psychological root, I think we would find power-worship and a Manichean “good guy – bad guy” worldview.  In order to believe you are truly “good”, it is necessary that your enemies be the embodiment of evil. In a sense, the more evil your enemies are, the more good you become as a result. And the easiest way to dehumanize your enemies is to keep them out of plain view, to deny them “human rights” – thus sending the clear message that they are not quite human.

It is clear how effective this can be as a political strategy, and it was put to wide use in Ms. Palin’s recent speech. Moral ambiguity never makes a good storyline – most people like their stories cut and dry: good guys over here, bad guys over there. The truth, of course, is rarely that simple, but great political rewards lie in store for those who can make its seem so.

However in the end it remains clear that those who wish to blow up buildings are of the same stuff as those who wish to murder people or commit vandalism – that is, they are criminals. Ask yourself whether we needed a military commission to try Timothy McVeigh.

Or are commissions only for brown people?

Still More Death in Pakistan

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Oh my God, not again! What kind of headline is this, New York Times? “Taliban Leader May Have Been Target of Drone Strike”. What does that mean, may have been? You really don’t even know who the target was supposed to be?

But nonetheless it killed “at least” 10 civilians.

Several Pakistani security officials said there was no word on the Taliban leader. “The important thing for us is whether Hakimullah is among those killed,” said a Pakistani official in South Waziristan. A Pakistani intelligence official added that he believed Mr. Mehsud was “definitely targeted” on Thursday.

Right, that’s the “most important thing” – getting this one guy who may or may not have been the target of this recent strike. Well, according to this guy he was “definitely targeted”. But the state department has other ideas.

A United States intelligence official said he could not confirm that Mr. Mehsud had been killed.

Great! Anyway, we’ve been trying to kill this guy before, right NYT?

American officials have been trying to kill Mr. Mehsud with drone strikes, but there was no immediate confirmation from American authorities that he had been the target of this attack, which struck a compound in a remote region near the border of the South Waziristan and North Waziristan tribal areas about 7 a.m. on Thursday.

In April of last year he escaped unhurt when an American drone struck a militant training camp in northwest Pakistan.

So that’s our strategy? Just play whack-a-mole with these killer flybot drones and hope we nail this guy? What about, you know, the civilians in the area? I guess they don’t matter.

Written by pavanvan

January 14, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Who cares about Yemen?

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Continuing its wanton disregard for other nation’s sovereignty, and, indeed, the right of their citizens not to be bombed to oblivion, the United States unleashed a massive “drone” attack upon the Yemeni shores late last week. Of course, the standard excuse of “suspected terrorists” was deployed in defense of the strike, but curiously, no “terrorists” were confirmed to have been killed.

The US did manage to murder more than 49 Yemeni civilians, including 23 children and 17 women, who, one assumes, feel quite dreadful about their “suspected terrorism”. Needless to say, this mini-atrocity saw almost no coverage in the US media, and the few papers who bothered to address the event did not see fit to mention the women and children deceased.

Man, Obama is earning that Nobel Peace Prize!

Written by pavanvan

December 22, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Somewhere in Pakistan, a militant has no wife

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A Taliban finds himself single once again, courtesy of the United States

Apparently we now consider the US slaying of a militant’s wife newsworthy enough to make the Times front page. Three others were also killed in the attack with four children wounded – but as Donald Rusmfeld famously said, “stuff happens”. Whatever nefarious actions this woman may have committed (given the status of women in traditional Islamic societies, I think it safe to assume such deeds as washing, cooking, and cowed obedience), we can rest assured that she will perform them no longer. Mr. Meshud will have to find someone else to wash his rags – but maybe this will induce him to go unwashed for a while. Victory!

Every so often the Times or the Post will trot out an article such as this in order to prove the efficacy of our continued unmanned attacks upon Pakistan. Lately standards have fallen – from killing highly-placed militants to grunt workers to mere passersby. Now, if today’s front page is any indication, we are content with killing their wives.  Every such article is taken as evidence of our “drone” attacks’ efficacy. Bomb enough villages, and surely they’ll desist!

It is worth taking a look, however, at what these cross-border attacks actually do. Though each one kills  or cripples several (usually up to ten)  civilians, only around one in five actually ends up killing a militant. Usually our intelligence is at least a day behind – by the time coordinates are fixed and an attack ordered, the intended target is long gone. And even a ‘direct hit’ is nothing to boast over. The defining characteristic of the Islamic movement, as described by Mark Sageman in his excellent book, “Leaderless Jihad” is its complete de-centralization. Often the “terrorist leaders” who we proudly claim to have dispatched end up leading only a small band of disgruntled misfits. The large-scale “terror networks” of yester-decade have been replaced, according to Sageman, by what he terms “bunches of guys” – pocket cells of less than ten. It is not difficult to see how combating such cells by pilot-less rockets would prove rather difficult.

On the flip side, our rockets have undeniably inflamed anti-American sentiment. It is a truism that every civilian killed spawns two or three (or ten?) new militants.  Given our vocal support of the Zardari government, our rockets have the unintended effect of causing extreme instability within Pakistan. People don’t like it when their government allows a foreign nation to fire rockets upon them all willy-nilly. Ask the Israelis.

So why do we continue this mis-begotten campaign of destruction, which serves no purpose and acts to the detriment of many noble ones? Why, to fill the pocketbooks of a few large arms manufacturers! I recently spoke with a former engineer of a prominent arms company who said that these drones are essentially their bread and butter.

Written by pavanvan

August 5, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Posted in Policy, War

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