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Rights in The Real World By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN (NY Times)

by THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN Wednesday, Dec. 05, 2001 at 8:32 PM

Date: December 2, 2001 Rights in The Real World By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN Attorney General John Ashcroft is not completely crazy in his impulse to adopt unprecedented, draconian measures and military courts to deal with suspected terrorists. Source: The New York Times Section: Opinion

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December 2, 2001 Rights in The Real World By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

was being interviewed the other day by an Arab satellite TV station when the host drifted into a line of questioning that one hears so often in the Arab-Muslim world today: "What proof do you have that bin Laden is guilty? How can you be sure the Arab passengers were the hijackers? Won't you be embarrassed if in a couple of years it turns out that the hijackers were really from Colombia?"

The host was a serious Arab journalist, who was partly playing devil's advocate — but he was certainly reflecting his Arab viewer's opinions. As I absorbed those questions, a famous picture came to my mind. It was the snapshot of American black and white college students reacting at the moment O. J. Simpson was pronounced "not guilty" — the blacks exploding in celebration, the whites grim-faced and angry.

Remember that picture? Well that picture is us and the Arab-Muslim world today. Just as many African- Americans felt abused for decades by the U.S. judicial system and expressed their anger by rallying to O. J. and refusing to acknowledge his apparent guilt, many Arabs and Muslims now passively back bin Laden to express their rage at U.S. support for Israel and repressive Arab regimes. America is to many Arabs and Muslims today what the L.A.P.D. was to many African-Americans — an unfair power structure. This is why so many intelligent Arabs and Muslims refuse to acknowledge bin Laden's guilt. They don't endorse his murders, but they relish his trying to beat the system. If bin Laden were to have a trial by his peers, he would be acquitted faster than you could say "Marcia Clark."

I raise this issue to make a simple point: Attorney General John Ashcroft is not completely crazy in his impulse to adopt unprecedented, draconian measures and military courts to deal with suspected terrorists. Do not get me wrong: I am glad critics are in Mr. Ashcroft's face, challenging his every move. His draconian measures go against our fundamental notion that people have a right to be let alone by government when there is no evidence that they have committed a crime and, if there is evidence, to be charged and tried in public, with judicial oversight, not in some secret proceeding. When our officials deviate from those norms they should be grilled and grilled again.

But having said that, I find myself with some sympathy for Mr. Ashcroft's moves. Listening to the debate, it is almost as if people think we're safe now: the Taliban have fallen, we've won and we can act as if it were Sept. 10 — with no regard to the unique enemy we're up against.

At some level our legal system depends on certain shared values and assumptions between accusers and accused. But those simply do not apply in this case. When we were at war with the Soviet Union, we saw the world differently, but there were still certain basic human norms that the two sides accepted. With bin Laden and al Qaeda we are up against radical evil — people who not only want to destroy us but are perfectly ready to destroy themselves as well. They are not just enemies of America; they are enemies of civilization.

Before we totally repudiate what Mr. Ashcroft is doing we need to remember something very basic: most of these hijackers came from big families. They left behind parents, brothers, sisters and, in at least one case, a fiancée. What does that say? It says they hate us more than they love their own families.

As the Israeli author Ari Shavit noted, they hate us more than they love life itself. In the cold war, we could always count on the fact that at the end of the day, the Soviets loved life as much as we did — which is why the Soviets finally backed down in the Cuban missile crisis. That is not the kind of enemy we are up against here at all.

So, yes, let us grill Mr. Ashcroft and President Bush every time they propose deviating from our legal norms. And let us certainly demand judicial oversight for their steps. But let's not debate all this in a vacuum. Let's not forget what was surely the smile on those hijackers' faces as they gunned the engines on our passenger planes to kill as many Americans as possible in the World Trade Center. Let's not forget what they would do had they had access to even bigger weapons. And let's not forget how long they lived among us and how little they absorbed — how they went to their deaths believing that American laws were only something to be eluded, American citizens only targets to be killed and American society only something to be destroyed. 


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company | Privacy Information

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