If we were serious

Posted: Jan 10, 2002 12:00 AM

In a world where ruthless international terrorists have targeted the United States, and where they may have nuclear and biological weapons in a few years, you might think that we would all get serious about the grim options facing us, and direct our efforts toward fighting terrorism as our top priority. But too many in politics and in the media seem to think that business as usual is good enough.

Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, seems hellbent to bring members of international terrorist networks into our domestic legal system, where more than a decade can go by before the most obviously guilty murderer can be executed.

In a war, you do not read Miranda rights to captured enemy soldiers or let them phone their attorneys. If you catch them behind your lines not wearing their own uniforms, you can legally shoot them as spies. If international terrorism is not quite the same as war, it is also not the same as ordinary domestic crime, so maybe you need some new institutions to deal with it. But you don't just blithely give international terrorists all the same rights as your own citizens in ordinary courts of law.

After World War II, when people really were serious, Nazi war criminals were tried in a court created for that occasion, enforcing international norms that had never been put into law before. These war criminals were then hanged without undue delay or hand-wringing. Why today's terrorists deserve any better is hard to see.

Legal experts may debate whether our laws as they exist today give military tribunals the power to try members of foreign terrorist networks. But, if we were serious, we would not get bogged down in that question, when Congress has the power to create new laws that would make it unmistakably clear to all that we will not let terrorists die of old age before we can get rid of them. If necessary, a constitutional amendment could be passed.

To say that we will fight terrorism only if it can be done without any changes in our laws and practices, or any other sacrifices, is to say that we are not serious about fighting terrorism.

Those who treat the current legal status quo as if it were set in stone too often want to turn to the International Court of Justice in The Hague as a place where terrorists might be tried. But should acts of war against the United States be dealt with by pandering to that amorphous thing called "world opinion"?

You don't farm out your own national defense when the lives of millions are at stake! Is that rocket science?

Some foreign countries will not even extradite criminals to the United States unless we agree in advance not to impose the death penalty. Can you imagine anything more dangerous than putting Osama bin Laden behind bars? Do you doubt for a minute that his terrorist network would hijack a plane or a ship full of people and threaten to kill them all if he were not released?

Whatever the arguments about the death penalty when it comes to ordinary, isolated murderers, there is no serious argument against it when it comes to members of an international terrorist network.

The great fear of all as regards the death penalty is that an innocent person will be executed by mistake. When it comes to international terrorist networks, how does that weigh in the balance against the much higher probability that vast numbers of other innocent people will be killed by the terrorists whose lives are spared?

No American wants innocent people killed, whether by execution or by terrorism. But preventing any innocent person from being killed is not one of our options when we are dealing with worldwide networks of murderers. The best we can do is to make as certain as humanly possible that as few innocent people as possible get killed, whether by the terrorists or by the legal system.

If Senator Leahy or others in Congress think that our laws will not permit military tribunals to try foreign terrorists, then they can pass laws that will -- instead of turning this into a political football for the next election. But they will get serious only if the voting public insists that they get serious.