Sunday, January 10, 2010

On terrorists and criminals

Defending the rights of criminals has always been a thankless job but let me give it a try. John McCain was spouting off this past week about why Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab should be tried in a military court and stripped of all rights afforded under the constitution. Seriously John McCain, have you completely stopped paying attention to the words that are coming out of your mouth?

I'll be the first to admit that no longer referring to a 'war on terror' is purely a rhetorical move by the Obama administration, but it nevertheless pleases me greatly. There is not and never has been a unified definition of 'terror' or terrorists. It has always been a convenient word to rouse populist uproar and create a sense of us vs. them, good guys vs. bad guys, all of which makes it easier for the war mongers among us to justify a bloated defense and security budget.

Make no mistake about it, whether we call them terrorists or not isn't going to make them go away. But there is a certain dignity in being honest about the way we label our enemies; axis of evil anyone? Calling every terrible thing that happens in this world an act of terrorism and evil gets us nowhere. And trying to make an arbitrary line between who is a terrorist and who is a criminal on a case by case basis shameful.

If someone can give me a consistent black and white definition of a terrorist, I might reasonably accept the differential treatment that goes with it. Does a terrorist have to attempt to kill more than 5 people? 100? Does it have to be in the name of Islam? How about other extreme religions? Why stop at religion at all, what about political groups? Scrabble clubs?

Wars are no longer, and probably will never be again, fought in the trenches. 'Enemy combatants' and garden-variety murderers are increasingly harder to tell apart from one-another and until we can reliably do so there is no justification in holding these two groups of people to different judicial standards.

McCain and other like minded jack asses think that we can get more information out of terrorists in military courts, and that there is no opportunity for loopholes that exist in the criminal system like plea bargaining and that ever-inconvenient Bill of Rights. Why abdul-Mutallab would decide to give us more information in one context over the other is left as an open ended question. Even McCain is rightfully against torture, so we're lead to believe that he will just voluntarily spill his al-qaeda secrets for our convenience if he is tried in a military court.

I don't think our legal system is perfect, but it is a fundamental pillar of American society that is admired and respected by intelligent, compassionate individuals across the world. Giving up on our principles of justice by arbitrarily deciding to bypass this system in favor of vigilant military tribunals is a slap in the face both to the architects of our great country and to the mere idea of human rights.

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