Defending against infamy, then and now

Posted: Nov 27, 2001 12:00 AM
Welcome back, liberalism. The New York Times is nattering about FBI interrogation of possible terrorists, and The Washington Post is muttering about military tribunals for terrorists. Some academics, looking back at the World War II tribunals, are even trying to turn George Dasch into a hero. George who? As part of the Nazis' "Operation Pastorius," he was one of four German saboteurs who landed by submarine on Long Island in 1942, with the goal of blowing up hydroelectric plants, railroad terminals and bridges, and aluminum plants. They, and four others who landed in Florida, carried high-explosive bombs disguised as pieces of coal and wooden blocks. Providentially, a Coast Guardsman encountered Dasch and others shortly after landing, and out of fear or a desire to switch sides, Dasch soon turned himself in and told FBI agents how to catch the others. A military court quickly tried the saboteurs. Six of the eight were sentenced as spies to death in the electric chair; that verdict was quickly carried out. Dasch plus another who cooperated received prison terms; released after the war, Dasch headed back to Germany and died there. Exposure of the Nazi plot was an important step for the United States. What we now call "homeland defense" was not taken seriously before Dec. 7, 1941, just as it was seen as unimportant before Sept. 11, 2001. Before World War II, as a Reader's Digest article in 1942 noted, "officers of the intelligence service had been frowned on as 'snoopers' by many private citizens and many in control in the government." That all changed with Pearl Harbor and then the exposure of Operation Pastorius. The quick collapse of Pastorius also dismayed Adolph Hitler, who after taking a personal interest in terrorizing Americans closed down the project that looked like a loser. Today's FBI is also trying to remake itself quickly into an anti-terrorist force. Now, as in the past, many in academia and media scorn the "snoopers." Historical revisionists now claim the FBI of World War II and the Cold War became an enemy of freedom. But just as America in the wake of one surprise attack needed to toughen up 60 years ago, we need to do the same now. Given the abuse of our legal system by judges who allow delays and appeals at the drop of just about any motion, the use of special military tribunals for accused foreign terrorists makes great sense: The terrorists are enemy soldiers out of uniform and using our freedom to commit mass murder. It's good that we are studying history -- and with the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack coming up next week, we'll be seeing more comparisons between the Dec. 7 day of infamy and our own Sept. 11 version. Many Americans had warned of danger for years before 1941, and even forecast a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, just as many observers, following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, predicted bigger and worse terrorist efforts; some even contemplated assault by air. Bill Clinton, though, was busy with other matters, and many of his officials emphasized emasculating the CIA and using the FBI to harass those notorious public enemies who demonstrate in front of abortion clinics. Radical Muslims came to assume that American presidents were moral lowlifes who might lob a couple of public relations-guided missiles at tents left behind, but would not take any serious action. Now, they know better, and so do we. We're relearning a truth offered by former Cabinet member John W. Gardner: "History never looks like history when you are living through it. It always looks confusing and messy, and it always feels uncomfortable." The next few years will be uncomfortable, but the facts are clear: Terrorists and their allies want to murder more Americans, and we need to disrupt their efforts before they take place, rather than waiting until tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent people die.