The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pulling Down the Monsters

America Needs to De-Mythologize Terrorists at Guantanamo

It is now over eight years since the devastating attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. Many argue that, despite the passage of time, our country needs to remain vigilant against terrorism; they point to the recent shootings at Fort Hood as proof that further terror attacks by Muslims on U.S. soil are very possible. They maintain we must mount a credible defense by dealing with terrorists in a realistic, pragmatic, and knowledgeable manner.

I could not agree more with this assessment. Perhaps the most important first step for America, in my opinion, is a need to de-mythologize the degree of threat and fear we consciously and subconsciously have woven around terrorists, particularly Islamic extremists. Unfortunately, reactions to recent government decisions/announcements suggest we have made little progress in this area.

The first example is the possibility of transferring about one hundred of the detainees currently located at Guantanamo Bay to an almost unused maximum security prison, located in the small town of Thompson Illinois.

Republican Representatives Mark Kirk, Don Manzullo, Judy Biggert and Peter Roskam of Illinois held a news conference in Chicago on Monday, where they characterized the prospect as “too risky.” One month earlier, Kirk was among Republicans lawmakers voting to allow Guantanamo detainees to come to U.S. soil for trial after reading a risk assessment. Yet two days ago, he warned that housing them in northwestern Illinois would cause Chicago to become “ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots.”

Folks in Thompson do not buy that argument, saying Chicago is already a target just by virtue of being a major city. “They're always in jeopardy anyway for attacks,” scoffed a local resident, hanging out with his friends at a bait shop near the prison.

Manzullo, whose district includes the Thomson prison, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "I adamantly oppose this plan to bring the terrorists to northwestern Illinois, where they could one day be released into our communities.”

“Instead of keeping suspected terrorists off domestic soil, the President . . . [is] poised to bring to Illinois those with the ability to operate beyond the walls of any prison,” bemoaned Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Proft.

Thompson locals refuse to panic over these trepidations either. “I've got plenty of weapons and ammunition at my house,” boasted Dave Lawton, a sixty-two year old retiree.

The second ruckus is over Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several other accused masterminds of the September 11 attacks in civilian courts, especially at the New York City federal courthouse, located a mere thousand yards from Ground Zero.

Former New York Mayor Rudy “Did I Mention 9/11?” Giuliani told FOX News Sunday, “This seems to be an over concern with the rights of terrorists and a lack of concern for the rights of the public.”

More serious, and certainly more moving, were concerns expressed by the family members of New Yorkers who died in the attacks. The city's wounds are simply still too raw, explained Lee Ielpi, whose son was a firefighter. “Ripping that scab open will create a tremendous hardship.”

Debra Burlingame, sister to one of the pilots from the hijacked airliners, objected not merely to the venue but also the prospect of civilian trials, calling them a “travesty.” She predicted Mohammed would ridicule the judge as well as his own lawyers and rally other Islamic extremists to his cause. She said “the prospect of these barbarians being turned into victims by their attorneys” sickened her.

Many of these same fears surfaced several years ago when the U.S. tried Zacarias Moussaoui in civilian court. Edward MacMahon, one of Moussaoui’s lawyers, downplays such an outcome, saying, “Federal judges deal all the time with defendants who try to disrupt cases.” That was certainly the case with District Judge Leonie Brinkema, who kept an iron control over the proceedings. “I've reached the conclusion that the system does work,” she said in 2008.

Interestingly, so has Moussaoui. “I had thought that I would be sentenced to death based on the emotions and anger toward me . . . but after reviewing the jury verdict and reading how the jurors set aside their emotions and disgust for me and focused on the law and the evidence . . . I now see that it was possible that I could receive a fair trial.”

A “fair outcome” may be exactly what those opposed to civilian trials fear most. They have already tried and convicted the Guantanamo detainees in their own minds and fear the prisoners will be able to escape rightful punishment on legal technicalities, such as disallowing confessions and/or other evidence because it was obtained under torture.

Even now, fifteen federal judges in the Washington D.C. district courthouse are hearing cases brought by the government against Guantanamo detainees. So far, the judges have rejected pleas for release from eight detainees but concluded the government did not have enough evidence to keep thirty others behind bars. Testimony obtained during interrogations that included torture was far from the only reason that judges found the government’s cases wanting.

“Much of the factual material contained in [the] exhibits is hotly contested for a host of different reasons ranging from the fact that it contains second- and third-hand hearsay . . . to the fact that no statement purports to be a verbatim account of what was said,” ruled District Judge Gladys Kessler in one case. “The evidentiary record is surprisingly bare,” wrote District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in another.

However, judges are balancing circumspection against lack of evidence when individual situations warrant it, such as the case of Adham Mohammed Ali Awad, to whom the court denied release. “The case against Awad is gossamer thin, consisting of raw intelligence, multiple levels of hearsay and documents whose authenticity cannot be proven, ruled District Judge James Robertson. “In the end, however, it appears more likely than not that Awad was, for some period of time, part of al-Qaida.”

The problem here goes beyond lack of trust in our own systems and institutions and comes back to rest on the concept of terrorists as somehow too powerful, too dangerous, too evil to be contained and properly tried on U.S. soil. If these terrorists are so invincible, how did they manage to fall into U.S. custody in the first place?

To be sure, some of them have directly committed heinous acts. Mohammed, for example, has claimed he personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Richard Pearl. For the most part, however, they are the leaders, financiers, and arms merchants who send out others, usually younger martyrs, into battle. They not only have a callous hatred for innocent non-Muslim lives but show equal disregard for their so-called brothers.

They are thugs and cowards – certainly no better than, say, mafia dons but not demonstrably more awful, albeit they kill for ideology or religion rather than money, for prophets rather than profits.

The definition of “de-mythologize” says “to make less mysterious or apocryphal so as to give a more human character.” The point of humanization here is not to make terrorists more sympathetic but to place their formidability, while still very real, within the proper context. It is both smart and reasonable to fear these individuals and the organizations they represent but fearing them beyond all reason is simply foolish, leading to foolish policies and actions against them on our parts.

The bottom line is that we have already held and are currently holding civilian trials and hearings for terrorist on U.S. soil without suffering constant reprisal attacks or the proceeding turning into a three-ring circus or tour de force for the ACLU. Likewise, federal prison already house two hundred and sixteen known international terrorists and one hundred and thirty-nine domestic terrorists. Thirty-five such terrorists are located in Illinois, the site of the potential Guantanamo replacement. None has ever escaped.

In the end, terrorists are horrible men – but still men – who dare aspire to what is unimaginable evil for most people. This and this alone is their greatest source of power against us. On September 11, eight years ago, those aspirations reached high enough to pull down two of our country’s tallest buildings. Today, it is time for us to pull down the monsters from the platforms where we have raised them in a combination of fear and loathing. Only then will we be able to deal with them in a realistic, pragmatic, and knowledgeable manner.

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