Michael Gerson

In exchange for a marginal public relations advantage, America will be subjected to the airing of intelligence sources and methods, to the posturing of mass murderers fully aware of their terrorist star power, to the possibility of mistrial and procedural acquittal, and to an increased threat of revenge attacks against New York City. Holder seemed to concede this last complication by asserting that New York is "hardened" against possible terrorism. If I were a New Yorker, that would fall into the category of chilly comfort.

In the end, Holder made a decision memorable for its incoherence. He declared American military tribunals constitutional and appropriate for some terrorists -- then awarded 9/11 mastermind Mohammed a presumption of innocence and the full, O.J. Simpson treatment.

In the original plan for the terrorist attacks, according to the report of the 9/11 Commission, Mohammed was supposed to be on the only hijacked plane that landed. He would kill all the males aboard, then make a dramatic speech to the world. At his trial, he will now get his wish.

Holder's choices do not reflect the normal policy shifts between administrations. It is not typical that seven former directors of the CIA have publicly denounced Holder's assault on the institution they served. It is not typical that Holder's immediate predecessor, Michael Mukasey, has called the plan for trials in Manhattan a risky "social experiment" that will raise the risk of attack "very high." Something unique and frightening is taking place: The ACLU is effectively being put in charge of the war on terror.

Holder contends that if people will "in a neutral and detached way, look at the decision ... and try to do something rare in Washington -- leave the politics out of it and focus on what's in the best interest of this country -- I think the criticism will be relatively muted." Holder clearly views himself as Atticus Finch, dispassionately defending the rule of law against the howling mob. In fact, Holder is taking the legal path blazed by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who defined legal objectivity as indifference to the soiled interests of his country. Holder's liberal principles have become "detached" from the real-world struggle against terrorism: Let justice be done, though the heavens, and buildings, fall.

Wartime American presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt have understood that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. So enemy combatants consistently have been judged by a different and harsher legal standard than American citizens. Whatever his initial assurances, Holder does not believe America is at war with terrorists. Even worse, he seems determined to undermine those who do.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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