With a hat tip to Ryan Reilly over at TPM Muckraker, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to the American Constitution Society on Thursday night and argued passionately for prosecuting terrorists in regular courts. Like the question of torture, the issue of whether terrorist trials should be conducted in civilian or military courts goes to the heart of fear-based politics.
And as with so many political debates these days, it’s a clash between the facts and manipulative amped-up rhetoric. Attorney General Holder reminded his audience that none of the dark scenarios hyped by the administration’s critics — prison break-outs by wily terrorists or attacks by their supporters at courthouses — has ever materialized. Most important of all is the fact that while civilian prosecutors have racked up hundreds of convictions of terrorists in the regular judicial system, their military counterparts can only claim successes in the single digits.
So obviously this isn’t about effectiveness; then what is it about? Silly as it might seem, the underlying politics of the issue are that military prosecutions sound tougher. The name of the game is rhetorical flourishes to show that one political side takes the terror threat more seriously than their opponents.
As time has gone on, the one-upmanship of toughness has taken on a life of its own and become disconnected from the practical challenge of stopping terrorists. In other words, if I can support measures or use rhetoric making me look like I’m more alarmed by terrorism than the other guy, that’s what I’ll do — never mind how my position squares with practical realities. I once wrote a blog post over at Democracy Arsenal teasing out this political dynamic to its logical conclusion (shouldn’t we have air-to-air missiles on our airliners?).
Another point I’ve stressed in this debate is that military tribunals are a symbol of American weakness, not strength. Take this passage from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reaction to the Holder speech:
The place for foreign terrorists and terror trials is in the secure detention facility at Guantanamo Bay — not in U.S. communities and civilian courtrooms. There is wide, bipartisan opposition to giving the rights of U.S. citizens to men who tried to kill our troops on the battlefield.
I mean, he makes it sound like terror defendants will be allowed to roam freely through American towns. Doesn’t he think our prisons can keep terrorists from escaping? And let’s retrace the underpinnings of these rights McConnell talks about. I thought Americans hold up our system as a model for the world, a paragon of democracy and universal values. The point of our judiciary is to produce verdicts with the strongest grounding in the facts and law and without prejudging. Senator McConnell doesn’t sound like he believes that. Or maybe he just sees a political opening.
Photo credit: ryanjreilly via flickr