The Best Moment Since 9/11?

It’s a little embarrassing to mention torture here, particularly after I was recently accused of shooting some other fish in President Bush’s barrel. But Anne Applebaum has an interesting piece in Slate in which she argues that the widespread semi-indifference to the confession of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed proves that torture is counterproductive. [UPDATE:  The piece also appeared in The Washington Post.]  This is not the first time Anne has argued that torture doesn’t work; she had an earlier piece in The Washington Post that focused on the unreliability of the information one gets through torture. This time, her focus is on the perception rather than the reality. By the way, Anne knows a thing or two about torture thanks to her Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Soviet Gulag.

I wish Anne had not claimed to have proven anything — I don’t think that’s the “way of knowing” that is involved here. And many would argue that it doesn’t particularly matter whether torture “works” in the sense usually intended, because it is intrinsically evil and we diminish ourselves by employing it. I’m with them.

But the question of perception is still an interesting one. One might have imagined on September 12, 2001 that finding the person actually responsible for the attacks of the previous day and bringing him to justice would be the crowning achievement of our international response. After all, don’t we all remember President Bush with his bullhorn amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center? The way he found his voice — and seemed almost surprised to find it — as he promised that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon”? The confession of Mohammed before the military tribunal didn’t feel like the promised vindication to me. Did it feel that way for you?

Contrast it, for example, with the sentencing of Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” who failed to kill himself and hundreds of other passengers by blowing up a transatlantic flight shortly after 9/11. After sentencing Reid to three life sentences, plus 80 years, plus 30 more years, plus a $2 million fine, plus restitution in the amount of $6,882.17,U.S. District Judge William G. Young addressed Reid as follows:

This is the sentence that is provided for by our statutes. It is a fair and just sentence. It is a righteous sentence.

Let me explain this to you: We are not afraid of any of your terrorist co-conspirators, Mr. Reid. We are Americans. We have been through the fire before.

There is all too much war talk here. And I say that to everyone with the utmost respect. Here in this court, where we deal with individuals as individuals, and care for individuals as individuals, as human beings we reach out for justice, you are not an enemy combatant.

You are a terrorist.

You are not a soldier in any war.

You are a terrorist.

To give you that reference, to call you a soldier, gives you far too much stature. Whether it is the officers of government who do it or your attorney who does it, or that happens to be your view. You are a terrorist. And we do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not sign documents with terrorists. We hunt them down one by one and bring them to justice. So war talk is way out of line in this court.

You are a big fellow. But you are not that big. You’re no warrior. I know warriors. You are a terrorist. A species of criminal guilty of multiple attempted murders. In a very real sense Trooper Santiago had it right when you first were taken off that plane and into custody and you wondered where the press and where the TV crews were and he said you’re no big deal.

You are no big deal.

What your able counsel and what the equally able United States attorneys have grappled with and what I have as honestly as I know how tried to grapple with, is why you did something so horrific. What was it that led you here to this courtroom today? I have listened respectfully to what you have to say. And I asked you to search your heart and ask yourself what sort of unfathomable hate led you to do what you are guilty, and admit you are guilty of doing.

And I have an answer for you. It may not satisfy you. But as I search this entire record it comes as close to understanding as I know. It seems to me you hate the one thing that is most precious: You hate our freedom. Our individual freedom. Our individual freedom to live as we choose, to come and go as we choose, and to believe or not believe as we individually choose.

Here, in this society, the very winds carry freedom. They carry it everywhere from sea to shining sea. It is because we prize individual freedom so much that you are here in this beautiful courtroom. So that everyone can see, truly see, that justice is administered fairly, individually, and discretely.

It is for freedom’s sake that your lawyers are striving so vigorously on your behalf, have filed appeals, and will go on in their representation of you before other judges.

We are about it. Because we all know that the way we treat you, Mr. Reid, is the measure of our own liberties.

Make no mistake though: It is yet true that we will bear any burden, pay any price, to preserve our freedoms.

Look around this courtroom. Mark it well. The world is not going to long remember what you or I say here. Day after tomorrow it will be forgotten. But this, however, will long endure. Here in this courtroom and courtrooms all across America, the American people will gather to see that justice, individual justice . . . Justice, not war . . . Individual justice is in fact being done.

The very President of the United States through his officers will have to come into courtrooms and lay out evidence on which specific matters can be judged. And juries of citizens will gather to sit and judge that evidence democratically – to mold and shape and refine our sense of justice.

See that flag Mr. Reid? That is the flag of the United States of America. That flag will fly there long after this is all forgotten. That flag stands for freedom. It always will.

Custody, Mr. Officer. Stand him down.

If there has been a better moment for us as a nation since 9/11, I can’t recall it.

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Posted in Bush Presidency, Citizenship, Conservatism, Constitution, Law, Moral Philosophy, Public Policy. Comments Off on The Best Moment Since 9/11?
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