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A Night At The SuperMax

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When Harry Truman was whistle-stopping his way into political history en route to his upset of Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election, he used many set pieces again and again from the back of his train. And they always worked. One example was to accuse the Republicans of misleading the American people. Harry said that the GOP lived by the philosophy, “If you can’t convince them; confuse them.”

I wonder what Truman would make of his distant Democratic successor in the White House. Would the man known for his plain talking sign off on President Obama’s brand new method of communication – one that would impress even George Orwell?

It might be best called transcendent-speak – the art of talking above-it-all.

Our president describes things like abortion and his approach to national security in language that defines the new administration as kind of “hovering-yet-right-in-the-middle,” with just about everyone else described as finger-pointing partisans and fear-mongering extremists.

Barack Obama’s recent speech about national security, delivered against the backdrop of all things historic and constitutional, was a case in point. By now, we all know that while Mr. Obama was speechifying at the National Archives, former Vice President Dick Cheney was weighing in with an address of his own at the American Enterprise Institute. It was split-screen heaven for policy junkies. I am now waiting for someone to YouTube some sound bites from both men, with the music of “Dueling Banjoes” from the movie Deliverance playing. This analogy works on several levels.

Mr. Cheney, by the way, won that one on points. And don’t even get me started on how well he’d do against Joe “da-bunker’s-dis-way” Biden.

Digging through all the rhetoric in President Obama’s speech – trying to separate wood, hay, and stubble, from yet more wood, hay, and stubble, I found one true thing. He said: “My single most important responsibility as President is to keep the American people safe.” He indicated that it is always on his mind (cue Willie Nelson song here).

Understanding responsibility and accepting responsibility are, however, two very different things. I find myself hoping against hope that he is not telling us everything – that deep down he gets it, or that he has his fingers crossed, or something. I want to believe that Mr. Obama is as much of a realist as most presidents quickly become on matters of national security (Jimmy Carter doesn’t count, of course). I am praying that he holds a few tough trump cards in reserve. But, let’s say I have my doubts.

You see, the president has a hard time even really talking about the enemy we are supposed to be vigilant against. He refers almost vaguely to an extremist ideology and talks about the high-tech threat from a handful of terrorists. And he says, in an effort to show how full his presidential-plate is, we are fighting two – count ‘em – two wars.

Two wars? Were we fighting two wars from 1941 to 1945? Or were the European and Pacific theaters possibly somehow related by a toxic affinity? When Italy was against us, were we then fighting three wars?

Of course not – there may have been several fronts, but it was the same war. And the leaders back then didn’t have a problem with naming the ideology. Roosevelt railed against the Nazis. Though Mr. Churchill talked about “Narzees” – raising the possibility that there was yet one more war, if you count it all that way.

In fairness, Mr. Obama did mention our historical success in overpowering “the iron fist of fascism,” even though in order to actually win, in those now long gone days, required a fist of our own – as opposed to an outstretched hand. But when he talked about us being “indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates,” I found myself thinking: “Affiliates? Affiliates?”

That’s it. Out with the war on terror, in with a war on those pesky “affiliates.”

Mr. Obama again defended his position on the closure of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. He reminded us of his oft-used assertion that, “the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.” It’s a cool line, but impossible to prove.

“If you can’t convince them; confuse them.”

One of the president’s great ideas would be to send many of the current Gitmo detainees to one of our “federal, supermax prisons.” But if his goal is to see that these misunderstood men escape unpleasant confines, anyone who knows anything about Gitmo and the federal prison system will tell you that conditions and treatment are worse in a supermax facility than at Gitmo. How will this play when the “affiliates” find out how bad the new home is and then use the new conditions as a recruitment tool. Where next?

People who have been to Gitmo tell me that the detainees there are treated better than anyone in our federal system. In fact, some tell me that those bad guys have it better than many of our nation’s fighting heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan!

The biggest irony of all as Mr. Obama’s policies evolve, is that he is apparently acknowledging that some of the more dangerous detainees may have to be held indefinitely. So much for absolute principles - there is some wiggle room after all. But of course, it’s all part of the “mess” he inherited.

On the flipside, Mr. Cheney seemed to speak with a good deal more of the “common sense” the guy on the other side of the screen (presumably, the left side) talked about.

He said: “In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.” He decried what he described as, “Recklessness cloaked in righteousness.”

This week, the Senate voted to deny $80 million for the closure of Gitmo. There is also legislation in the pipeline with wide support that would require a “threat assessment” for all of the remaining 240 detainees before any other decision about their future is made.

As for President Obama, he calls opposition to his approach fearmongering. He says that some are using, “words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them.” And he adds, “Bear in mind the following fact: Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal ‘supermax’ prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists.”

He’s right. But the insertion of new and dangerous terrorists, complete with some of the structural changes that would be needed to create the image that these men will not be treated badly, raise the possibility of rendering the facilities a little more vulnerable. Not to mention the idea that some of the terrorists might be treated better than the other inmates because of political considerations, might just create, shall we say, unrest on the part of the all the regular criminals. In other words, it could all lead to a really bad night at the supermax.

Fearmonger – that’s an interesting term. It’s all the rage these days, like pandemic. The word, “monger,” means “a dealer in a specific commodity.” One can be a fishmonger, for example. Of course, using the suffix with fear is designed to create the idea that someone is spreading something destructive, even devilish.

Was it fearmongering when the government had us all freaked out a few weeks ago about the swine flu? Most of us would say “no.” Disease is serious stuff and we are wise to take heed to warnings and wisdom.

I suggest that a little fear in a dangerous world is quite wise. The problem, as I see it, is not fearmongering, but rather, pipe-dream-mongering. Americans should not be paralyzed by fear, but we should be concerned enough to know that we are not even close to being out of the terror-filled woods. When there is a toxic virus, you don’t send those infected to school with the other kids. When it comes to terrorist detainees, Gitmo is their home.

There’s no place like home.

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