The War on Terror Has Not Gone Away

Thane Rosenbaum in The Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2008

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The War on Terror Has Not Gone Away
Despite economic woes, this is no time to let our guard down.

Thane Rosenbaum

Amid the bailouts and credit squeezes, market meltdowns and recessionary worries, America has seemingly swapped the war on terror for the one waged to save its worsening economy.

Falling skyscrapers now have less gravitational pull than collapsing 401(k)s. The sleeper cells of snoring, incompetent bankers are more terrifying than al Qaeda. Rescue arrives in the form of number crunchers, not Special Forces operatives.

America is undergoing a radical shift in national priorities. Our anxieties have been rechanneled. While the attacks of 9/11 will never be forgotten, the consequences of 9/15, the date when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, are now in the forefront.

We have also been engaged in a subtle passing of the terrorism torch. The five most notorious terrorists at Guantanamo have made full confessions and asked to be executed. President-elect Barack Obama, in keeping with his campaign pledge to dismantle Guantanamo, will soon reassess how and where suspected terrorists will be detained and prosecuted in the future -- if at all.

Toward that end, Portugal has agreed to resettle some of Guantanamo's detainees and other European countries may soon follow (Albania has already done so). With 9/11 receding in memory and new national urgencies upon us, America is hoping to outsource some of its detention -- and perhaps even prosecution -- problem to its allies.

Meanwhile, India, following the tragedy in Mumbai, and Belgium, which recently charged six terrorists from the Belgian branch of al Qaeda with a suicide plot, are stepping up their own counterterrorism and prosecution efforts. Britain recently convicted a British doctor of Iraqi descent with the attack on Glasgow airport and the attempt to detonate two bombs in London's West End. Germany is prosecuting a man accused of funding a terrorist camp and encouraging others to join al Qaeda.

And yet, in America, the Patriot Act might be repealed.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the events of 9/11 would not forever define our national character. And certainly we would be expected to move on to other challenges. But are we unwittingly endangering our national security by the kind of neglect and failed oversight that ruined our economy? Lapsing into the complacency that might expose America to a repeat performance of mass murder is not a sound trade-off for economic health.

Yes, the past eight years of military tribunals, indefinite detentions and warrantless surveillance have caused many Americans to question whether we have too severely compromised the rule of law -- even as we acknowledge the global menace that terrorism presents. But just because our liberal democracy is, understandably, made uncomfortable by these post-9/11 initiatives doesn't mean that they haven't largely been necessary and have also saved lives.

Indefinite detentions may offend our principles, but speedy trials for suspected terrorists presents no less a moral dilemma. When it comes to terrorism, holding too fast to our Constitution may result in losing a grip on our nation's security.

Try as we must to remain faithful to our constitutional history, we simply cannot fail to punish those responsible for 9/11 and protect Americans from future harm.

If Guantanamo is ultimately closed, then Congress should account for the special circumstances of terrorism and enact legislation that would empower courts to adjudicate terrorist-related crimes. One thing is for certain: our Founding Fathers never contemplated al Qaeda.

The Constitution is limited when it comes to an atrocity. The imperfections we accept in prosecuting ordinary crimes are intolerable when dealing with the extraordinary crime of terrorism. This is precisely what drew the Bush administration to Guantanamo Bay, and away from American courtrooms, in the first place.

Providing our courts with enhanced jurisdiction and substantive laws would answer the call for greater transparency, establish a more definite time frame on detention and a stricter adherence to evidentiary and procedural safeguards.

As we all board the bailout bandwagon, let us not forget what other countries have painfully remembered: Global terrorism has not disappeared. Despite the damage done to our economy, this is not the time to let our guard down. We are still living in a crisis age. And the crisis is not confined to the global financial meltdown.

Mr. Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor at Fordham University, is the author of "The Myth of Moral Justice" (Harper Perennial 2005).