U.S. Attorney General Says No to Fear-Based Politics

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.

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Photo credit: ryanjreilly via flickr


Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener6 years ago

Do they even know where to begin?

Dave Tohunga
Dave te tohunga6 years ago

What would be honest would be putting on trial in the world court the US citizens charged with torture, mass murder and other crimes against humanity!
The US govt has murdered and maimed more innocent civilians than any other terrorist organisation on the planet...
...and the contamination from it's internationally illegal DU ordinance will be killing and maiming innocent beings for millions of years to come!
YOU are the worst terrorists in human history if you support these evil criminals
who pretend to be 'national security'.
How stupid are americans to even listen to these corrupt criminals in their govt and military?

Paul B.
Paul B6 years ago

If you bring these guys into a civil trial, you might as well shut donw most aspects of our national security. If any and all evidence is allowed to be made public, who would ever be a confidential informant, work for the CIA, and any other military intelligence agency. You can't jsut open the books for the world to view.

These guys aren't normal war criminals, they are rogue chicken-shit terrorists who break every geneva convention article, but then expect to be treated under the same rules for which they have such little regard. No way.
These terrorists have minimal rights as they gave up those rights when they decided to do what they did. Trial, yes. Civil grandstanding, not allowed.

John T.
John T6 years ago

@ Robert P D.; Ever since these Standardized Tests were introduced to evaluate children's learning, this dumbing down, as you refer to it, has been on the increase.
The simple answer is, the children are taught 'to pass the test'.
Social Studies, as they were referred to in my day, are left on the side of the road. Those studies include Geography, History (of both state and nation), and Civics (understanding the 3 branches of government and how they work).

The test results are available here:

I have my own questions regarding the 'Historical Skills' required, i.e. a Grade 4 Basic Level question:

Interpret a map about the Colonial Economy

It goes downhill from there.

John T.
John T6 years ago

Stephen B. says: "The defendants are being tried under the same court-system as U.S. forces would be, except that they are given a more lenient set of rules, making the relevant use a "military tribunal" rather than a UMCJ-trial."

Stephen, it's hardly the same at all.

John T.
John T6 years ago


The Guantanamo military trials do not operate according to either system of justice. The differences include:

Unlike civilian courts, only two-thirds of the jury needs to agree in order to convict someone under the military commission rules. This includes charges such as supporting terrorism, attempted murder, and murder.[4]

The accused are not allowed access to all the evidence against them. The Presiding Officers are authorized to consider secret evidence the accused have no opportunity to refute.[5]

It may be possible for the commission to consider evidence that was extracted through coercive interrogation techniques before the enactment of the Detainee Treatment Act.[6] However, legally the commission is restricted from considering any evidence extracted by torture, as defined by the Department of Defense.[7]
The proceedings may be closed at the discretion of the Presiding Officer, so that secret information may be discussed by the commission.[8]

The accused are not permitted a free choice of attorneys, as they can only use military lawyers or those civilian attorneys eligible for the Secret security clearance.[9]

Because the accused are charged as unlawful combatants, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that an acquittal on all charges by the commission is no guarantee of a release.[10]

Robert P D.
Robert Doyle6 years ago

The extreme views of some posters is evidence the Bushies dumbing down of Americans is working. In a short 40 yrs., too many "educated" people in America are now bigots and live by Faux Noise . Grow up you retards, support and defend our Constitution.

Jason H.
Jason H.6 years ago

Oh, whatever. I will not be impressed until TSA says "no" to fear-based policies.

Lara Nunes
Lara Nunes6 years ago

Attorney General Holder the same person who supports the New Black Panther the leader of that organzations HATES all White People. The same Organization which is a Black Supremists group.