Since taking office, Obama’s key objective on terrorism has been to transform the public perception of it from an international military conflict, to a limited domestic criminal problem. Renaming terrorism to the bureaucratically euphonious term, “Man Caused Disasters” was straight out of the first rule in the textbook of organizational coverups, to phrase your sentences so that the identity of the perpetrators of the crisis remain as vague as possible. Focusing on everything but terrorism, while shutting down Gitmo and dispatching top Al Qaeda terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to civilian trials, was meant to restore the illusion of normalcy, while doing away with the terrorism focus of the Bush Administration.
There was a reason that once in office, Obama showed a very limited interest in pushing for the prosecutions of Bush Administration officials, as the left wing expected him to. Unlike them, Obama understood that the best way to shift the conversation was by avoiding the topic, not by confronting it head on… because while the American people may have turned on the Republicans, they were more likely to support a tough on terror approach, than not. Main Street America was a long way from ACLU headquarters, and so Obama decided that the best way to win the debate on terrorism… was not to have it all.
Seeing how fast Cheney’s numbers shot up by simply calling him out on terrorism, could have only stiffened Obama’s resolve to avoid the issue. But the issue refused to avoid him, whether it was demands that he come to a decision on Afghanistan, a renewed wave of terrorist attacks on American soil or a growing backlash from New York over holding the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trials in the city—Islamic “man caused disasters” just refused to go away.
By moving Khalid Sheikh Mohammed into the civilian legal system, Obama and Holder were undertaking to engineer a massive shift in how America dealt with terrorism. It was a shift that everyone from lawyers to liberal pundits to the nutroots had been pushing all along. It was the message on the earliest posters tacked up by left wing activists on the streets of Lower Manhattan, even as the ruins of the towers were still smoldering. The shift would transform terrorism from a conflict fought in defense of America, to an internal criminal matter for the legal system to deal with. The difference between the two lies in far more than just a matter of which judges get to sit on the bench and where the trial takes place, it cuts right to the issue of what is really happening here.
Treating Islamic terrorism as a criminal problem transforms it from an international threat, into something purely local, akin to an armed robbery or a murder or two. And as liberal doctrine would have it, crime is not really preventable except through social welfare policies. That is precisely the tack that European governments have taken on terrorism, working with Muslim communities to improve their economic and social status. That would have been the next stage for the Obama Administration, if a roadblock hadn’t risen up on the road to the New York trial.
Moving the trial into the legal system, transforms it from a popular campaign, into a technical matter for the courts. It denies the compelling interests of the American people in this trial, by making it an abstract thing, a matter of dueling legal citations. And what better way to deny the reality of the War on Terror, than by turning terrorists and their atrocities into abstract formulae for lawyers to pore over. The second rule of the organzational coverup, is to always make a crisis seem more abstract, and therefore less relevant.
Holding a civilian trial for the planner of the attacks of September 11, in lower Manhattan, would not only close the circle with the original Twin Tower bombers trials, but would assert that terrorism is a criminal problem, that there is no war, that the issues will be settled by using the same procedures used for Americans charged with a crime. That the situation is complete normal, and that there is no War on Terror.
In the Bush Administration’s narrative, America was at war with international terrorism. In the Obama Administration’s narrative, there was no war, only a legal matter for the courts to settle. In the Bush Administration’s narrative, the conflict was being fought to protect Americans and American interests. In the Obama Administration’s narrative, the case had nothing to do with Americans, only with processing a few more inmates through the bowels of the legal system.
The legal system is of course a wonderful thing. It is composed of abstract legal standards that are meant to provide indiscriminate equal justice… to Americans. The reason we have a legal system is to protect the rights of Americans to a fair trial. Our legal system is an American institution. It exists as an extension of the local and national governing bodies and their governing documents. Which are themselves subsidiaries of the will of their local communities and the national will of the American people. In short the American legal establishment represents the interests of the American people in a fair and just legal system. A system that they created for their own interests.
The American people have no interest in providing their enemies with the benefit of the same rights and legal standards that they enjoy. And no matter how much ACLU lawyers may tangle the issue, the fact is that the American people actually have a compelling interest in depriving their captured enemies of the benefits of any such process. While the lawyers may insist that the American legal system is a transcendent device that only takes into account the law, that law and the legal system in all its institutions cannot be divorced from its root origin in the rights of the American citizen. No American institution can.
Of course this very idea is one of the greatest terrors of the legal establishment, which refuses to see itself as representative of a specific people or nation, but rather of abstract standards that they base on other abstract or philosophical transnational standards, with possibly a cite of some random line in the Constitution that usually has very little to do with the issue.
To liberals the entire military infrastructure of the War on Terror threatened their own power bases in the civilian judiciary. It assigned the War on Terror firmly into the realm of warfighting and not social justice. And Obama’s policy to slowly shift terrorism back into the realm of lawyers and social workers came up against a problematic reality, composed of his own cronyism and the watchfulness of the American people.
Obama’s cronyism led him to neglect and even show contempt for New York on numerous occasions. Despite winning the state, Obama’s presence had never been strong here, and it has taken very little to summon up a backlash from even supposedly friendly Democrats. The Princess Caroline disaster alone demonstrated that had a special election been held, New York might have produced results rather similar to Massachusetts.
By designating the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial for New York City, without showing any interest in covering the monumental costs of such an affair, estimated in the billions, Obama treated the city as he had all along. But this time taking New York for granted generated a backlash, which had both of the state’s Democratic Senators, the liberal Mayor who had campaigned for him, and even his own voters protesting in the streets against him in Lower Manhattan.
Had Obama ponied up the money, it’s likely that the politicians would not have said “Boo” to the trials. But their protests alerted the public to the prospect of the trials here ahead of time. Which in turn helped create a startling alliance between Republicans, Conservative Democrats and New York politicians, angry over having a multi-billion dollar economic problem thrust on a city and state already deep in the red. The resulting circus helped bring the issue to national attention, at a time when terrorism was already in the news, and the perfect storm was born.
The key to burying terrorism as anything but an abstract legal issue was to ignore it. And it seems as if Obama seriously thought he could do that… just as he did his best to ignore Afghanistan. But of course it didn’t work. And Americans understood instinctively the problem with putting terrorists through a process with privileges such as a presumption of innocence, meant for them. Putting Islamic terrorists through the American legal process, was a statement that Americans had no more legal rights than captured terrorists do. A statement that can be read in more than one way.
The American people in 2008 were not happy with the way the War on Terror was going, but neither were they on board with pretending that there was no war at all. And that was exactly what Obama was trying to accomplish. It is exactly what every critic of the idea of fighting a war on terrorism, from the left or the far right/ has worked to do. Reduce it to a legal problem. Deny there’s a war on. And then address the crime problem by finding out what the criminals want and what we can do to make them happy.
And while Obama may have hit a roadblock in lower Manhattan, but his agenda is still the same. A legal revisionism aimed at throwing a blanket over the War on Terror and lifting it to reveal only a social problem.
Daniel Greenfield is a New York City writer and columnist. He is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and his articles appears at its Front Page Magazine site.
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