Patriotism and folly

It’s possible to be wrong without being disloyal.

James Taranto, the editor of the Wall Street Journal’s online, is a truly nasty piece of work, who should find himself comfortable under Murdoch ownership. For example, he makes what amounts to an accusation of treason when he calls the legislative movement to protect habeas corpus and prevent torture as “efforts on behalf of enemy fighters.” (Note: “on behalf of,” which American Heritage defines in these terms: “as the agent of.” Taranto is accusing American Senators as acting as the agents of enemy fighters. Last time I checked, that was called “treason.”) Phil Carter is right to denounce Taranto as a neo-McCarthyite.

But I think Phil picks on the wrong part of Taranto’s argument.

Taranto writes:

Colin Powell would go even further. “I would close Guantanamo, not tomorrow, but this afternoon,” the former secretary of state told NBC’s Tim Russert earlier this month. “I’d get rid of the military commission system and use established procedures in federal law or in the manual for courts-martial.”

Mr. Powell claimed that “I would not let any of [the detainees] go,” but his proposal would inevitably have that effect. Once inside the criminal justice system, detainees would become defendants with full constitutional rights, including the right to be charged or released, the right to exclude tainted evidence, and the right to be freed unless found guilty of a specific crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Legitimate prisoners of war enjoy no such rights. The primary purpose of holding enemy combatants during wartime is not punitive but preventive–to keep them off the battlefield. No one disputes that a country at war can hold POWs without charge for the duration of hostilities. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority in Hamdan, reaffirmed the government’s authority to do the same with the unlawful combatants at Guantanamo.

By granting constitutional protections to detainees, Mr. Powell’s proposal would endanger the lives of American civilians.

“Even further” than “efforts on behalf of enemy fighters”? Pretty impressive, don’t you think?

Phil comments:

Mr. Powell “would endanger the lives of American civilians”? Really? I have a really hard time believing that this lifelong soldier, statesman and public servant would pursue a policy that might have that result. It has long been my understanding that Powell spoke from a position of realism on this issue &#8212 not some hidden desire to help the enemy.

But surely the fact that Powell had “no desire to help the enemy” doesn’t rule out the possibility that the position he advocates would in fact endanger the lives of American civilians. Perhaps he’s wrong. Or perhaps he’s spinelessly drifting with the prevailing political winds, as he did for four years as Secretary of State.

In this case, I think Powell is correct, though terribly late to the game. But surely Powell’s patriotism and sincerity shouldn’t immunize his opinions from criticism.

By the same token, I believe that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are all subjectively patriotic, and that only one of them is a complete fool. I also believe that their actions have needlessly endangered the lives of Americans (and, of course, Iraqis) and left the country weak and dishonored. That is, I think their actions are profoundly unpatriotic, though their intentions are otherwise. If this be McCarthyism, make the most of it.

Footnote Of course, not every policy that endangers the lives of American civilians is a bad policy, because life is not the only good, nor death the only evil. Resisting Nazi, and then Soviet, attempts to dominate Europe, and the Japanese attempt to dominate East Asia, surely endangered the lives of American civilians. On balance, supporting Israel probably endangers the lives of American civilians. And it’s entirely possible that complying with the Geneva Conventions might, under some circumstances, endanger the lives of American civilians. Would you rather face an extra one-in-a-million risk of dying in a terrorist attack this year, or be a citizen of a country that practices torture? I don’t think that should be a hard question.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: