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Liberalism a luxury during war

IN one of the more compelling episodes of The West Wing, filmed after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Democratic president Jed Bartlet is confronted by a harrowing decision.

Should he authorise the assassination of a minister of the government of Qumar, a fictional Arab nation, who moonlights as terrorist mastermind and is involved in a foiled attempt to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge? Like any good Democrat, Jed is troubled.

Let’s bring him to court, he says. Can’t happen, responds Leo McGarry, the tough-minded chief of staff. He tells the president: “This is the most devastating part of your liberalism. There are no absolutes.”

Dramatic television assassinations aside, McGarry’s observation is especially poignant as the long war against Islamist terrorism unfolds. Recalibrating the balance between individual freedom and national security is a hotly debated issue. And rightly so.

The post-Cold War peace has given rise to a comfortable and complacent liberalism, a liberalism that caused what the 9/11 commission report called a “failure of imagination” in understanding Islamist terrorism. A liberalism that means many of us are uneasy at the means required to confront an enemy almost as deadly, if less conventional, as the 20th-century totalitarians. Interrogations, Guantanamo Bay, military commissions and new anti-terrorism laws aimed at home-grown jihadists are part of a post-September 11 world.

That world means enduring endless fury from those who talk of moral absolutes, refusing to acknowledge the true nature of terrorism and trying to stoke our liberal unease. Whichever way you cut it, the civil libertarians do the bidding of terrorists when they cling to the halcyon days of peace without threats. Close down Guantanamo Bay? Excellent news for the infidel killers. Junk the military commission? Even better. Overturn anti-terrorism laws? Great news for those in our suburbs plotting our destruction. Claiming the high moral ground, the Law Council of Australia and its confreres say it’s all done in the name of individual liberty and justice, of course.

The problem is that using perfect justice - a Rolls-Royce legal system beloved of the legal lobby - for terrorists means treating them like ordinary criminals.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is proof why that can no longer apply.

His confessions last week suggest he is the Mr Big of terrorism. Arrested in Pakistan in 2003, KSM has admitted to 29 terrorist plots ranging from September 11 to beheading American journalist Daniel Pearl, assassination attempts against Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter (just proving that Democrats are also infidels), Pope John Paul II, bombing the nightclub in Bali, planning second-wave attacks in the US and Australia. Now, maybe KSM is just an Islamist braggart who figures if you’re going to meet your maker and a bevy of blessed virgins, better to beef up your CV. But boasting aside, KSM is evil.

Yet sure enough, out came the claims that the guy confessed under duress because he has been detained for years, most recently at Guantanamo Bay.

As one American pundit told ABC radio, Gitmo is the problem. (Right about now, we’re due to see a photo of KSM as an angelic nine-year-old.) Actually, Gitmo is part of the solution of keeping enemy combatants off the battlefield.

Back in 2004, in Hamdi v Rumsfeld, the US Supreme Court affirmed the US Government’s right to capture and detain, without criminal charge or trial, enemy combatants until hostilities cease.

We don’t know what happened to KSM during his detention. In his evidence to the Combatant Status Review Tribunal, he claimed mistreatment. But he also said his confession to that tribunal was not coerced. If you still think the confession is bollocks, go to the evidence amassed by US authorities, as outlined in paragraphs (a) to (v) of the unclassified transcript of the tribunal’s proceedings released last week.

A computer hard drive seized when KSM was captured contained information about the four planes hijacked on 9/11, including codenames, flight numbers, pilots’ names, hijackers’ names, photographs of the hijackers, pilot licence fees for Mohammed Atta, images of passports, chat sessions with hijackers, letters to Osama bin Laden, spreadsheets of financial assistance to families of al-Qa’ida members. And on it goes.

When asked which bits of evidence he disputed, KSM quibbled about only four points.

He denied receiving funds from Kuwait or telling al-Jazeera TV that he headed al-Qa’ida’s military committee. And he objected to all those paragraphs of evidence, preferring they be rolled into one “to avoid creating the false perception that there are more allegations against me specifically than there actually are”. Oh, and he pointed out that his name was misspelled.

OK, let’s concede the paragraphs, perceptions and spelling mistakes. KSM is still a grade-A terrorist.

And so, fortunately, Guantanamo Bay is home for this enemy combatant for some time to come. Just as it has been for David Hicks. Those who continually cry “Too long” have missed the problem here. There is a war on. Peacetime justice does not work in a time of war.

US ambassador Robert McCallum has revealed that of the 335 detainees released from Gitmo to date, about a dozen have been recaptured or killed after they resumed playing Jihad Joe on the battlefields in Afghanistan or Iraq.

It’s a dangerous mistake. These guys don’t reform like your run-of-the-mill peacetime criminal.

The other apparatus constantly disputed by the peacetime justice advocates is the US military commission. And just watch the criticism heat up with Hicks, due to be arraigned next week.

So let’s go back to what the US Supreme Court said last year in Hamdan v Rumsfeld. The court held, unanimously, that military commissions are a lawful means of trying and punishing those captured during the war on terror. The court struck down the original commission on the basis that congressional authority was needed if the commission’s procedures differed from those of ordinary courts martial. So the US Congress has approved a new military commission conforming to that Supreme Court ruling.

It won’t satisfy the Hicks supporters. These people rally against measures aimed at boosting national security the moment individual freedoms are curtailed. It’s a trade-off most of us accept. We know freedoms are not absolute.

Terrorists are not ad hoc robbers planning a bank heist. Their aim is to kill us. Lots of us. Taking them at their word means adjusting our liberalism. Failing that, our liberalism will be our downfall.

Over to you…

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