Fatigue, the wise man said, makes cowards of us all. Fear can fool wise men, too.
A lot of Americans are frightened, and fear is not evidence of weakness. But giving in to fear invites panic and can make good men say and do things they will regret when dawn breaks, as it inevitably will, and terror of things that go bump in the dark subsides.
Osama bin Laden, even in a cave in Kandahar, is a spooky fellow, enough to give strong women the willies and courageous men the creeps. He’s enough to make everyone want to play soldier, particularly the callow who have never seen the face of war up close.
Rich Lowry of the National Review, impatient with the pace of the pursuit of the Evil One, wants to use nuclear weapons to seal Afghan caves and make the Middle East glow in the dark for a thousand years.
“One lesson everyone learned from the Gulf War,” he writes, “is that the way to keep a site safe from U.S. airpower is to dig really deep (bin Laden is applying this lesson in a crude way in his attempt to hide in caves, including perhaps the Tora Bora complex that proved resistant to conventional bombing during the war with the Soviets). Winston Churchill’s bunker in London during World War II was about 10 feet deep. Rogue states are now digging hardened bunkers hundreds of feet deep. Once you get far enough down, even our most fearsome bunker-busting conventional bomb isn’t good enough to do the job. Only a nuke will do.”
The nuclear option is the last resort, not the first, and prudent men and women will always save the best (or worst) for last. We’ll probably never use an atomic bomb to seal a cave. George W. Bush’s strength as president flows from his patience, his cool judgment, his willingness to carefully calibrate his response to outrageous provocation. That’s why America is winning this war.
That’s also why some of the solutions urged on him by his lawyers have raised unexpected eyebrows. The administration has skillfully exploited the fear that hovers over the landscape in the wake of September 11, and nothing illustrates this better than the willingness of those who know better, or should know better, to wink at the shortcuts through the Constitution as the administration pursues the Evil One and all the little evil ones.
Those who argue that the president’s executive order authorizing military tribunals, which would not be bound by either the well-established norms of civil courts or even the safeguards of the Uniform Code of Military Justice is neither necessary nor just are accused either of weakness (“if you can keep your head while the rest of us are losing ours maybe you don’t understand the situation”) or of having insufficient contempt for the evil ones (“what color is your turban?”).
The fearmongers got a break, or so they think, with publication of public-opinion polls demonstrating that by huge margins Americans approve of the shortcuts through the Constitution. By 73 percent to 19 percent, those polled say the government is doing “enough” to protect the rights of suspects, 79 percent say the Justice Department’s plan to summon 5,000 Middle Eastern men for questioning is OK, 73 percent say it should be “legal” to tap conversations between lawyers and their Arab clients, 86 percent say the government is justified in detaining Arab suspects without charges. But by the heartening margin, given the givens, “only” 59 percent of those polled think the president’s idea of secret trials for terrorists, with no provision for appeal, is a good idea. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Other polls over the years have shown that by big margins Americans would cheerfully trash the Bill of Rights, depending on how the question is worded, with the First Amendment a particular target.
The president felt it necessary to defend the idea yesterday in a speech to U.S. district attorneys, meeting in Washington. “Non-citizens, non-U.S. citizens who plan and/or commit mass murder are more than criminal suspects,” he said. “They are unlawful combatants who seek to destroy our country and our way of life. And if I determine that it is in the national security interest of our great land to try by military commission those who make war on America, then we will do so. We will act with fairness, and we will deliver justice, which is far more than the terrorists ever grant to their innocent victims.”
There’s no reason to doubt that this president intends to act with fairness. But he won’t be president forever. Once upon a time conservatives professed deep respect for slippery slopes and unintended consequences, and understood that precedents can be fearsome booby traps.