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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.