Jonah Goldberg

One response to the crime epidemic was to redefine violent crime as a "public health issue." Traditional law enforcement was simply incapable of dealing with the "social pathologies" and "root causes" of the wave of gun violence and the like.

Fortunately, this approach, while far from dead, was relegated to the back burner by the successes of anti-crime initiatives in places like Rudy Giuliani's New York. The solution, it largely turned out, wasn't to become more tolerant of criminality by recasting it as a cultural or lifestyle choice or by invoking root causes (as The New York Times often did), but to become less tolerant of crime. In New York, turnstile jumpers, graffiti artists, even the infamous "squeegee men" were treated as the lawbreakers they were. One heartening moral of the story is that sometimes deviancy can be defined back up.

We learned a similar moral after 9/11. For years -- starting around the time of Klinghoffer's murder, as it happens -- policymakers in both parties debated how to define terrorism. Is it a law-and-order issue or a military threat? If it's a military threat, how do we define a "proportionate response" -- this legalistic phrase entered the national-security lexicon back then, too. By the end of the 1990s, the best and the brightest of the Clinton administration found the answer in a lawerly kind of proportionality, blowing up empty office buildings as a way to "send a message" in response to attacks on America and her interests.

After 9/11, the gloves were off. The far left beseeched the government to retaliate with, at most, a proportionate response, but no one cared. We toppled the Taliban as a warm-up act. Terrorists weren't criminals anymore, they were enemy combatants, ineligible for the Geneva Conventions. But the war in Iraq and reports of American zeal in the war on terror have left a sour taste in our mouths. That there have been no terrorist attacks on our soil only bolsters the sense that terrorism is manageable, even banal. Barack Obama leads a counteroffensive from a legal establishment that wants to treat terrorists like any other criminals. Terrorists in Mumbai or Jeddah are little more than the squeegee men of the New World Order.

This vain legalism will run its course for a good long while, I suspect. And we will hear and then forget a lot of names before we relearn some hard lessons.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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