Treating Terrorists Like Americans – and Americans Like Terrorists

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Nov 29, 2010 12:00 AM

With approximately 21 million Americans flying during the 12-day period surrounding Thanksgiving – and more preparing to fly over the Christmas holidays -- the public debate over the new, intrusive TSA searches isn’t likely to die down any time soon. Nor should it.

Certainly, in a democratic republic, citizens have every right to weigh in on the proper balance between freedom and security (although it is a bit rich when those who routinely sport today’s most revealing fashions -- or their parents -- suddenly react with shocked modesty to the prospect of scanners showing what’s already pretty well evident to the naked eye). But the widespread outrage is more than the traditional American aversion to intrusive, overreaching government.

In truth, it’s a revolt against the Obama administration’s moral obtuseness in prosecuting the war on terror. The kind of searches the TSA is now empowered to conduct signal that the terrorist threat is real, and pressing, and imminently dangerous to each of us – so dangerous, in fact, that government agents must have license to grope anyone in the security line in the most personal, intimate ways. Now, Americans might be willing to accept this level of intrusion – where any law-abiding citizen can be treated as a potential terrorist – if it were consistent with the administration’s approach to confronting terrorism and those who engage in it.

But it’s not. And that mismatch rightly generates public disgust and outrage.

Think of the President’s longstanding approach to the war on terror. From the beginning, candidate Obama sent the message that the Bush administration was overreacting to the potential for attacks by Islamic extremists. Indeed, since taking office, the President has used the phrase “war on terror” less than a dozen times, preferring instead circumlocutions like “overseas contingency operation.” (And who can forget Janet Napolitano’s famous “man-caused disasters”?)

Worse, the administration has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to treating terrorism like a law-enforcement matter, rather than a military one. From proposing to move Guantanamo Bay prisoners to US prisons and send the 9/11 plotters to trial in Manhattan to terminating the questioning of the Christmas bombing suspect after one hour and reading him his Miranda rights, the Obama administration has been exquisitely sensitive to the perceived rights and sensibilities of suspected terrorists.

There’s a cost to that sensitivity, as the American people were recently reminded by the near-acquittal of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantamo detainee to face trial in a civilian court. He was convicted on only one count, and acquitted on more than 280 others, when the civilian rules of evidence barred key witness testimony about Ghailani personally providing explosives for a terrorist plot to destroy a US embassy in Africa. Nevertheless, the administration seems determined to persist with a civilian trial – complete with all the civil rights trimmings – for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

So as law-abiding American citizens stand patiently in security lines and submit to embarrassingly intimate searches by TSA employees (themselves uncomfortable with the new inspection regime), no wonder they are angry. If the President himself seemed deeply concerned about the potential of further terrorist attacks – and insisted on dealing sternly with those who perpetrate them – no doubt Americans would be more receptive to his insistence that they be treated like potential terrorists when they travel. But so long as he seems committed to treating terrorists – even known terrorists – to the full panoply of rights available to American citizens while subjecting American citizens to treatment that suggests each of them is a potential terrorist, there will be public outrage. And that’s just fine. Outrage is the appropriate response by decent, free people to their leaders’ willful moral blindness.