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.
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
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.
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