Terrorism Derangement Syndrome: The GOP's scare tactics work so well because the public is already so afraid.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Feb. 3 2010 6:41 PM

Terrorism Derangement Syndrome

The GOP's scare tactics work so well because the public is terrified already.

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I have read several good explanations for why the GOP leadership has decided to make the case that processes that worked in the Bush administration (like civilian trials) won't work under Obama, and why policies that failed in the Bush administration (like torture or military tribunals) must be reinstated. Maybe it's simple obstructionism. Josh Gerstein points out that for Republicans seeking to capitalize on Obama's missteps, his feints and pivots on national security have proved fertile ground. And Greenwald concludes that "our establishment craves Bush/Cheney policies because it is as radical as they are."

But it's not just the establishment that opposes closing Guantanamo, trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or reading Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights. Polls show most Americans want Abdulmutallab tried by military commission, want Gitmo to remain open, and want KSM tried in a military commission, too. For those of us who are horrified by the latest Republican assault on basic legal principles, it's time to reckon with the fact that the American people are terrified enough to go along.

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We're terrified when a terror attack happens, and we're also terrified when it's thwarted. We're terrified when we give terrorists trials, and we're terrified when we warehouse them at Guantanamo without trials. If a terrorist cooperates without being tortured we complain about how much more he would have cooperated if he hadn't been read his rights. No matter how tough we've been on terror, we will never feel safe enough to ask for fewer safeguards.

Now I grant that it's awfully hard to feel safe when the New York Times is publishing stories about a possible terrorist attack by July. So long as there are young men in the world willing to stick a bomb in their pants, we will never be perfectly safe. And what that means is that every time there's an attack, or a near-attack, or a new Bin Laden tape, or a new episode of 24, we'll always be willing to go one notch more beyond the rules than we were willing to go last time. 

Some of the very worst excesses of the Bush years can be laid squarely at the doorstep of a fictional construct: The "ticking time bomb scenario." Within minutes, any debate about terrorists and the law arrives at the question of what we'd be willing to do to a terrorist if we thought he had knowledge of an imminent terror plot that would kill hundreds of innocent citizens. The ticking time bomb metaphor is the reason we get bluster like this from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, complaining that "5-6 weeks of 'time-sensitive information' was lost" because Abdulmutallab wasn't interrogated against his will upon capture.

But here's the paradox: It's not a terrorist's time bomb that's ticking. It's us. Since 9/11, we have become ever more willing to suspend basic protections and more contemptuous of American traditions and institutions. The failed Christmas bombing and its political aftermath have revealed that the terrorists have changed very little in the eight-plus years since the World Trade Center fell. What's changing—what's slowly ticking its way down to zero—is our own certainty that we can never be safe enough and our own confidence in the rule of law.