Sunday, June 22, 2008

Pre-9/11 Mentality

Barack Obama, very much rightly, in my view, said that domestic terrorism seems to think domestic terrorism should be treated as a crime. The approach of the Bush administration is not compatible with the rule of law. Using the first bombing of the World Trade Center as an example, Obama said that terrorism can be successfully prosecuted in civilian courts, without recourse to Bush's Dirty War tactics.
The Republicans reply was characteristically flim-flam. Jon Chait:
And so, when Obama let pass from his lips a reference to trying terrorists in court, McCain's campaign pounced. Foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann warned, "Obama holds up the prosecution of the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 as a model for his administration, when in fact this failed approach of treating terrorism simply as a matter of law enforcement rather than a clear and present danger to the United States contributed to the tragedy of September eleventh." McCain's blog scoffed, "It's hardly surprising that a lawyer would think that the war on terror would be fought more effectively by lawyers than by the United States Marine Corps."

It doesn't matter that Obama never said, or even implied, that legal prosecution should be the sole method of preventing terrorism. The fact that he even mentioned prosecution apparently proves that he has what McCain's campaign called a "September 10th mindset."

Yet some logical flaws with this analysis present themselves. (And yes, I realize that the mere fact that I would intellectualize this issue, rather than understanding it in my gut, proves that I too have a September 10th mindset.) First, terrorists often operate in our country, or in friendly countries, which makes military action against them tricky. McCain (through his campaign blog) assailed Obama for favoring "prosecutors rather than predators." But, when the terrorists are holed up in New York City, as was the case with the 1993 bombers Obama referred to, simply arresting them strikes me as more efficient than leveling their apartment with a drone-fired missile.

Second, when terrorists can be found outside the reach of law enforcement, Obama has explicitly proposed to strike them militarily. Last summer, The New York Times reported that the Bush administration had actionable intelligence about high-level Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. It planned a snatch-and-grab operation but cancelled at the last minute. In a speech the following month, Obama called this "a terrible mistake," and promised, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." McCain criticized Obama for this, too, saying he "once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan."

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