ROSS: Put terror on trial

We interrupt this usual weekly bulletin of local crime and security issues to address a pressing security matter on the national and international stage: the fight against terrorism.

It is a common refrain that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have shaped the first decade of the 21st century. They undoubtedly have, but only because we have let them.

President George W. Bush saw the attacks as an act of war and responded in kind. In doing so, he fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s wish for a global war. Throughout the 1990s, al-Qaida was a relatively contained group of jihadists. More importantly, it was seen not as America’s opponent in a global clash of ideas, but as a network of criminals. When they were caught, they were hauled to American courtrooms, usually in New York, prosecuted as any drug trafficker or bank robber was and tossed into federal maximum security prisons, where dozens languish to this day, rightfully forgotten.

But once America was waging war against al-Qaida, its twisted musings were elevated to the level of a rival ideology on par with fascism or communism. The war on terror turned criminals into warriors.

Criminals attract condemnation in any culture — they are the enemies of law and order, of civilization itself. But warriors are honorable. Far from containing al-Qaida, the U.S. war against it expanded it — local militants in hotbed regions around the globe wanted in on the global war and sought the propaganda boost received from taking on America and the West rather than the local police force. The ranks of al-Qaida swelled. As any counterterror expert knows, terrorists expect the response to a terrorist attack, not the attack itself, to cause the most grievous harm. By waging war, we walked into the trap. A decade of war has been the result.

Waging war against terrorists doesn’t even work when it works. Under President Barack Obama, most of the counterterror policies of Bush have been consolidated — and deepened to unprecedented levels. The U.S. has assassinated thousands of people, civilians among them, in countries where we are not at war.

Two American citizens are among the dead — citizens summarily executed in secret and without trial, or even official acknowledgement. All assassinations are secret and thus immune from public scrutiny. Guantanamo Bay is still open, as is the failed system of military commissions. To ring in the new year, Obama signed a bill mandating military custody of all terrorism suspects, whether they are captured in Kansas or Kandahar. Backed by a bipartisan confederation of dunces, indefinite, global war goes on.

Terror war supporters, former Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh among them, defend such actions are typical of any armed conflict. But never before has the government had such authority to declare when this war ends — it is not clear it ever will.

Secrecy, assassinations, indefinite detention, the abandonment of the rule of law, none of it can be simply put back into the box when the government thinks enough terrorists have died. America now has zero credibility in telling other nations not to similarly push back the rule of law and act extrajudicially, a lack of moral authority that threatens fragile democracies worldwide. U.S. government officials are reportedly discussing whether they can use the same targeted killing strategy against Mexico’s drug cartels, seeing it as a vastly quicker and easier route than helping reinforce Mexico’s justice system. How long until a gang problem in an American inner city becomes the next tempting target for a quick fix? If left unchecked, the war on terror threatens to become the war on all threats at all times in all places.

Today, it is a mantra of politicians of both parties that the so-called law enforcement approach to fighting terrorism should be abandoned. But what is a fight against terrorism if not the enforcement of the law against the forces of chaos? Law enforcement must retake its rightful place at the center of the nation’s counterterrorism and reverse America’s slide away from the rule of law. A law enforcement approach does not mean we must restrict ourselves to law enforcement tools — the Central Intelligence Agency and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command have crucial roles to play in tracking down terrorists. But the difference lies in what we have in store for terrorists: an open trial and a prison sentence rather than a secret prison without charge or a bullet to the forehead.

Criminals are those who break the law — terrorists are simply a variety of criminals. To treat them otherwise is to lend them too much legitimacy. A nation’s character is formed by its response to the direst of problems. So far, violence, not law, has guided our response to terrorism. For the sake of our American republic, that must change.

Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at


  • Arafat

    And what of southern Thailand where 5,000 Buddhists have been killed by Muslims. Is that because their chants were too loud thereby forcing the Muslims to take action?

    And what of Sudan where 2.6 million (2.6 MILLION) helpless people have been slaughtered. Is that because colonialists forced the Muslims to do this or might it be because Islam’s core tenets prescribe it?

    And what of the millions of Hindus butchered in the 11th, 12th and 13th century by Muslims. Who forced this upon the peaceful Hindus?

    Colin, one can engineer an argument for everything and anything. Our idiot editorialists for the main stream media and our idiot politicians do it daily, but that does not mean we should emulate their foolishness.

  • River_Tam

    > Today, it is a mantra of politicians of both parties that the so-called law enforcement approach to fighting terrorism should be abandoned. But what is a fight against terrorism if not the enforcement of the law against the forces of chaos?

    The argument here is specious for obvious reasons. The “law enforcement” approach to terrorism is a specific model of fighting terrorism based around using law enforcement officers within the United States to prevent terrorists from carrying out their plots. Under this system, a man who wants to blow up buildings in the US should be arrested by the local police when he buys the fertilizer for his bombs, or when rents the truck or when he’s caught by police who see him acting suspiciously outside a federal building.

    The “Bush method” (for lack of a better term) of fighting terrorism is to prevent terrorists from *reaching* the US and to prevent terrorists from even entering the store to buy the fertilizer. These are the same tactics used against organized crime, because, like the Mafia, Al-Qaeda and organized terrorist groups are able to easily evade the “law enforcement” approach using a network of people working together.

    We can debate where the line in the sand is on civil liberties and profiling and taking off shoes at airports, but suggesting that the “law enforcement” approach to terrorism is synonymous with “respecting the rule of law” merely reveals either Mr. Ross’s intellectual dishonesty or his ignorance of the issues at play.

  • SY

    Colin, find them a jury of their peers. So their friends won’t threaten or kill jurors or their families. The organized crime problem times 10. The rule of law works mostly for those who can be forced to play by the rules. Terrorists just don’t care about rules.

  • JackJ

    You should realize that both the CIA and SOCOM are prohibited by statute from law enforcement activities. Since rule of law requires chain of custody for physical evidence, warrants for search and arrests and access to witnesses by defense lawyers how do you propose that such requirements be factored into trials for terrorists? Intelligence organizations cannot function if they must reveal their sources and methods in open court thus your proposal would effectively shut down the ability of such organizations to operate. Is that your goal, to leave the US unprotected from threats arising abroad?

    While there may be elements of criminal activity in terrorism you cannot deny that the history of terrorism is not found in the annals of criminal activity but as a technique for waging unconventional warfare. You even admit as much with your assertion “As any counterterror expert knows, terrorists expect the response to a terrorist attack, not the attack itself, to cause the most grievous harm.” Is that how criminals think or is it what a politically motivated group believes will happen in an unconventional war. A war fought in no small part in the international media.

    Your assertion “Throughout the 1990s, al-Qaida was a relatively contained group of jihadists….” also negates your argument. By treating al-Qaida as a criminal conspiracy the Clinton administration allowed it to grow into an internationally based organization using terrorism as an instrument of unconventional war. Ever considered why the Trade Center was targeted? It was because al-Qaida tried in 1993 and failed to bring it down. From whence came the blind sheik, where was UBL resident, who was the blind sheik’s host in Khartoum? Do you think criminals routinely set about to bring down symbols of US commercial success? The al-Qaida criminals prosecuted in 1993 were only the first in a long line of true believers waiting their turn to attack the US. During the period 1993-2001 what exactly do you think that “relatively contained group of jihadists” was planning?” Had their leaders disappeared, had the US acted with authority rather than lamenting there were no bench warrants to merit action, there would have been no 9/11 and no subsequent war on terrorism.

    That the US government committed conventional forces to this “war” is regrettable. That since 9/11 we have used unconventional methods that allow for fewer people to be harmed when an enemy of the US vanishes is to you a bad thing. You prefer to debate the issue. Others prefer to remove the threat seizing upon the practical vice the ideal. Yes there is always a possibility for abuse but we have trusted in our self-correcting system before why not now? That is why I recommend you go into government and make yourself part of the process.

    BTW, If you’re going to crib from John Kennedy Toole re a “confederacy of dunces” you should give him credit.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I would be on the same frequency as Mr. Ross had I not felt completely helpless the day the 9/11 attacks occurred. Completely.

    I did not know what to say to myself or others.

    The need to lash out emerged in others almost immediately, especially in Yale alumnus GWB.

    I remained stunned and silent—even confused. Why would anyone hate America (?) I thought in my naivete, and as the religious dimension emerged in the news as a motivation, I started uttering ‘the Crusades” to myself as a way of understanding America’s sudden vulnerability.

    Which comes first, the hatred or the institution around which the hatred solidifies?

    It is the same stupidity which the latrine Marines exhibited last week in Afghanistan and the Abu Gharib U.S. soldiers exhibited a few years ago, which religious and political fanatics use and harness to their causes:

    It is the testosterone laden fervor of youth.

    At least Mr. Ross is trying to use his brains and not his hormones to respond this problem of violence.


    • JackJ

      Regrettably you have fallen into the trap set by the “terrorists” and unfortunately by too many “intellectuals” who believe that if we could only sit down and discuss the matter we would come to an understanding. You are right in that we should use our brains. And if we did we would realize this struggle has nothing to do with religion or culture. It has everything to do with power and the vestiges thereof. Either you are in power or you allow yourself to be ordered about. That’s the history of the world. al Din (religion) is only a tool those who would wield authority use to further their ambition for al quwa (power). The sooner we accept that this isn’t a struggle of ideologies and is solely a contest about who gets to decide which direction history travels the better off we’ll be. From history we should also learn that it is always better to be on the winning side. As for urinating on corpses-not good form-but certainly preferable to lopping off the heads of non-combatants.

    • lakia

      Yes peeing on someone is EXACTLY the same as beheading them or crashing a civilian plane into an occupied building. Thinking such as yours is SOOOO part of the problem.

      • JackJ

        I think you’ve allowed your emotions to get the better of you. See theantiyale’s comments. You’ve also negated Mr Ross’ original argument because under rule of law there are categories and degrees of crime. In my opinion for you to believe desecration rises to the same degree either morally or under rule of law as murder describes why it is so easy for the “terrorists” to exert authority through the use of culture and religion.

        Yes I’m sure my thinking is part of the problem but then so is everyone’s. Where you stand depends upon where you sit.

        • lakia

          I was in agreement with YOU JackJ. My comment was a sarcastic reply towards Antiyale, it just happened to follow yours. I absolutely do NOT equate the two actions. Only on another planet should murder and poor judgement been seen similarly.

        • lakia

          I was replying to Anti yale, not you JackJ. See above. It just happened to followed your comment. I was employing sarcasm, although, obviously not very effectively. Murder and poor judgement (peeing) aren’t even in the same ballpark, let alone on the same planet.

  • lakia

    Because I agreed with Arafat?