Sunday, May 31, 2009

True Belief

What follows was published some years ago in the Desert Leaf. Things haven't changed---as the recent murder of an abortion doctor while he was in church suggests. Things haven't changed. Neither has my opinion.

True Belief and Tribunals

Terrorists are true believers. They are men and women so profoundly convinced that theirs is the one true way that they are willing to see you dead for disagreeing with them. They are frequently religious fundamentalists and they have a hard time dealing with life in a secular  society.

Open societies  make room for their citizens to hold many different religious or political views. The  social contract  upon which such societies are grounded is the simple agreement that I may live according to my beliefs and you according to yours so long as the practice of mine doesn’t keep you from the practice of yours.

As kindly old Chairman Mao once said, “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy.”

Schools of thought may contend through vigorous debate, propaganda broadsides, or friendly  conversations. You are free to fill your neighbor’s mail with pamphlets or slip a waspish jeremiad under his door. You are not free to open his door and toss a hand grenade into his living room. That’s terrorism.

Religious fundamentalism pushed to wacko extremes destroys an open society when it tries to impose a one-size-fits-all lifestyle on its citizens. In this respect there isn’t a nickel’s worth of difference between the Taliban and anti-abortion extremists who bomb clinics, send anthrax threats in the mail, harass men and women seeking family planning advice and assassinate physicians.

Each group is at war with America and the social contract that makes our open society possible. Each group resorts to strategies of terror to effect social or moral change. In the fundamentalist’s garden only one flower blossoms and an opposing school of thought dares not speak its name.

Here in the United States  the anti-abortion terrorists have been at it longer than the Taliban. Letters to abortion rights groups and family planning centers threatening anthrax attacks were common here long before September 11th. Ditto bombings. Ditto murder.

As a result of the events of September 11 Americans have adopted a get tough attitude towards terrorism that can be appropriately applied to anti-abortion clinic bombers and anyone who finances or harbors them.  

Now that we have established the principle of  justice by tribunal we have a nifty new tool for digging out anti-abortion terrorists. The tedious old safeguards of the rights of the accused and the guarantees of a fair and impartial trial don’t apply if you are a terrorist. 

Neither do many of the quaint notions of protected privacy, the right to confront your accuser, examination of the jury by your attorney, or viewing the evidence to be presented against you prior to your trial.  

Best of all, the polls show that most Americans approve of this attack on what used to be our constitutional guarantees to a fair trial. After all, only non-citizens are going to be treated that way, and they may be, or harbor, terrorists.  

It is precisely here that the slippery slope begins.

Why should citizens be exempt? Why not apply the same standard to any persons or groups who employ the strategies of terror? By accepting the idea of tribunal justice for non-citizens we have already given up one of the central ideals by which we defined  ourselves as a just society.

We have given up the idea that any human being accused of a crime in our country has  the right to a fair and impartial trial as defined and guaranteed by our constitution. It’s a shame we have found it so easy to cast off this idea; defending it was what gave moral force to our international arguments on behalf of universal principles of justice. 

Here’s the way the tribunal system might work. We send letters to every person who has had any contact with the anti-abortion movement and  request that they report for  ‘voluntary’ interrogation. (This sort of thing was proposed by Attorney General Ashcroft in targeting some 5000 young men from the Middle East.) You donated money to a “right to life” organization? You attended a church retreat in which anti-abortion strategies were discussed? We’d like to talk to you.

Incidentally, did you know that your cousin in Benson has been accused of sending threatening letters to a clinic in Eloy? We can’t tell you who made the accusation, protecting sources you know. We’re sure you’re innocent but we’re going to hold you as a material witness.and bye bye habeas corpus.

Adopting the principle of justice by tribunal does us more harm than good in the long run since it requires that we give up one of the core principles of American democracy and is not necessary to bring the accused to justice in cases of terrorism. 


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