It happened in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, when all was anger, fear, confusion and a strange kind of determination to go on as if nothing had happened. Amidst it all, I was supposed to write a column. More daunting, it was supposed to make sense. What's an inky wretch supposed to do in those stunned circumstances?
Plagiarize, of course. Excuse me, adapt a line from an earlier time. And what better source than the ever energetic Teddy Roosevelt? He, too, had had to deal with bandits in a faraway country. In his time, specifically 1904, an American businessman of uncertain citizenship, Ion Perdicaris, had been kidnapped in Morocco by the last of the Barbary pirates, the Sherif Ahmed ibn Muhammed Raisuli. (Now there's a name to conjure with!)
TR reacted just as one would expect TR to react. He dispatched (1) a naval squadron to Tangier, and (2) a point-blank telegram laying down his terms in plain English: "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead."
It apparently worked. After a good deal of confusion and intrigue, not to say comedy, Perdicaris came home to a White House reception.
In 2001, the culprit had a name soon to become all too familiar to Americans: Osama bin Laden, and there was nothing comic about him. He was thought to be somewhere in the fastnesses of Afghanistan at the time (and may still be) under the protection of the Taliban, just as Raisuli had operated in the Rif under the only nominal jurisdiction of the sultan of Morocco.
Borrowing a leaf from Teddy's book, I wrote a column suggesting that American policy ought to be just as simple and clear and concise as TR's:
Osama alive or the Taliban dead.
Bully! Another column out of the way.
But wait. Between the writing and the syndication, there is always a pause if you have a good editor. Mine at the syndicate explained that there was a problem.
Oh, what was that?
Well, not that he necessarily agreed with his boss, but she'd noted that Osama bin Laden and his gang, aka al-Qaida, hadn't been formally identified as the perpetrators of this horror. So how could I write that they were responsible for the attack on the Twin Towers merely because it was obvious?
I controlled myself. Or tried to.
I chose to meditate on the final scene in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," and Alec Guinness as the correct British colonel who'd completely lost touch with the larger reality, i.e., the war he was supposed to be fighting. In the end, he can only watch in horror and dismay as the fine bridge he's had his troops build for the enemy is destroyed in an Allied commando raid.
His is a madness within the greater madness that is war.
Of all the characters in the movie, just who was craziest is left up to the audience to mull. But the final words of the film recur to me with some regularity these days: Madness, madness. Madness!
I remembered those words on being told of the risk I was running in accusing Mr. bin Laden of this crime without proper documentation. After a polite but pointed conversation with my editor's editor, the column's reference to Osama bin Laden was retained.
Still, it would have been a consummation devoutly to be wished if Mr. bin Laden had shown up in this country to file suit for libel. What a pleasure it would have been to meet him, complete with a welcoming committee from the CIA, FBI and 101st Airborne, and maybe even get a chance to interrogate him - excuse me, interview him - en route to Guantanamo.
An impossible fantasy, of course. For one thing, it would have meant denying the accused a writ of habeas corpus, and after Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, who knows what this Supreme Court might have to say about that?
Congress has just passed another statute authorizing military commissions in hopes of meeting the new requirements laid down by the Supreme Court.
There's no telling if the court will OK the use of such military tribunals even though Congress now has approved them. After all, the Supreme Court has just ignored the couple of hundred years of legal precedent on which military commissions are based. (An American commander named Washington relied on them in his time.)
Whenever I come across the argument that such tribunals are unconstitutional, and the war on terror ought to be conducted by litigation, I think:
To borrow another phrase, this one from the Hon. Robert Jackson, late an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, let's not confuse the Constitution of the United States with a suicide pact. Thank goodness Justice Jackson's generation didn't.
As if the GIs caught in the Battle of the Bulge didn't have enough problems, suppose they'd had to supply every German prisoner they took with a lawyer to file a writ of habeas corpus on his behalf - including those unlawful combatants caught in U.S. Army uniforms, the better to confuse and misdirect American forces. Yep, that's just what the laws of warfare now need: another incentive to take no prisoners.