Two big stories this week involved terrorism and national security: the backlash against new, invasive security procedures at U.S. airports, and the acquittal on all but one charge of a defendant in the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
I don’t think you can fully understand one without the other.
On the one hand, you have the government treating every single person who comes through the airport as a potential terrorist — when, as Charles Krauthammer writes, “the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. [Yet] instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches.” At Reason.com, Robert Poole offers a very reasonable alternative screening strategy that would address most of the concerns raised by the new techniques while falling just short of the dreaded “profiling.”
On the other hand, you have the government treating foreign war combatants, sworn enemies of the United States, as if they are U.S. citizens, with all the rights and privileges we enjoy. That is how a man like Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani can be tried in a civilian court rather than a military tribunal, which has rules of evidence that take into account the vastly different nature of apprehending a suspect and collecting evidence on a battlefield rather than in a civilized society, where law-breaking and lethally dangerous behavior are the exception rather than the norm.
The overall message from the Obama administration to the American public is that it cares more about upholding a certain facade of fairness than taking its responsibilities seriously.
It’s a facade because, in the case of the civilian trials for terror suspects, the Obama administration has never had any intention of letting an acquitted defendant go free. Had Ghailani been cleared of that last charge against him, as he was of more than 280 others, we would have been treated to the spectacle of seeing the feds continue to jail him anyway under a “presidential post-acquittal detention power.” As I’ve argued before, this plan actually mocks the rule of law far more than trying a terror suspect in a civilian court could ever enhance it.
Above all, these approaches to national security only further underscore the idea that Barack Obama, as Peggy Noonan has written, is “still seeing a reality no one else is seeing.” And in this case, the consequences are not merely political.