Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, November 19, 2001

New anti-terror tools must be used cautiously

Our war on terror has spawned an astounding range of new tools for investigators and law enforcement personnel.

Few Americans want to see authorities handicapped in their war against this shadowy enemy. But there is rising concern that the balance between efficient law enforcement and civil liberties has tipped too far toward efficiency.

At some point, the United States could lose the moral high ground if it abandons the very freedoms it says it is fighting for.

One particularly troublesome proposal would use military terror tribunals rather than civilian courts to try those accused of terrorism.

"Foreign terrorists who commit war crimes against the United States in my judgment are not entitled to and do not deserve the protections of the United States Constitution," Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft said this week.

The problem with this appalling logic is that it assumes we know who is guilty and what they are guilty of even before we try them. Effectively, Ashcroft suggests suspending the Constitution for those merely suspected of terrorism.

Already, there are hundreds of foreign-born nationals being held in detention. No one suggests the Bush administration intends to simply run these people through a modern-day Star Chamber. But there is no way of knowing for sure.

As we move toward swift, secret and perhaps retaliatory justice, it is interesting to note what happened in Afghanistan last week within the Taliban justice system. Judges there said they were reluctant to proceed with the trials of Western aid workers (including some Americans) because they feared they could not be fair at a time the Americans were bombing their country.

Is there a lesson here?

Beyond insisting on maintaining our quality of justice, there is a practical reason for caution. If the rest of the world — particularly the Muslim world — perceives the process as a kangaroo court conducted in secret, it is likely to conclude we simply didn't have the evidence to convict fairly.

And if that happens, we gain nothing.