Fear Itself

This morning, while reading The Washington Independent’s Daphne Eviatar’s excellent report on the death penalty for terrorists, two things occurred to me.

First, there’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the right about trying Khalid Sheik Mohamed in New York City because, apparently, KSM said he wanted to be tried in New York. As Rudy Giuliani said, “I didn’t think we were in the business of granting the requests of terrorists.”

Giuliani’s point is of course silly — as Dahlia Lithwick put it, “Funny, that. I didn’t think we were in the business of caring one way or another what the terrorists want from us” — but let’s assume for the moment that Giuliani really wants to follow the principle he articulated. If we shouldn’t grant terrorist requests, what would Giuliani have us do with terrorists who want to be put to death, who believe that being executed by infidels will make them martyrs? Would Giuliani argue that because a convicted terrorist asked for the death penalty, we shouldn’t execute him? Hard to imagine. So what principle is really behind Giuliani’s remarks? And if there is no principle, what’s motivating him instead?

Second, a common complaint on the right is that we mustn’t try terror suspects in America because doing so would make us unsafe (similarly, we can’t imprison terrorists even in supermax prisons from which no one has ever escaped because… well, it’s not clear why, exactly, but incarcerating terrorists in quality American prisons scares some people a lot). For example, John “Surrender is Not an Option” Bolton says he’s practically ready to evacuate his family from New York if we try KSM there, because such a trial will render New York unsafe.

Let’s do for Bolton what we’ve done for Giuliani — extract the principle he’s articulating, and see whether he’s serious about applying it. The principle is: we should deviate from applying our rules of justice if we’re afraid that following those rules could increase the danger of a terror attack. Well, what if it’s possible executing terrorists would do just that? It’s hard to imagine John Bolton or anyone like him arguing we shouldn’t execute terrorists because doing so might lead to new terror attacks. But then what principle is really driving him? Or what’s driving him in the absence of principle?

There was some spirited debate in the comments to my previous post over my use of the term “rightist.” I’ll have more to say on the topic of nomenclature in a future post, but for now: if you’re talking about rhetoric and policy positions fueled by fear (or the cynical exploitation of fear), rhetoric and positions so unprincipled they crumble in the face of even the most cursory logical scrutiny (like that applied above) you’re almost certainly talking about the right — meaning the Republican party. I don’t know why someone would dispute this. You can either embrace it (“Hell, yes, I’m afraid, and you should be too, and with good reason”); or you can disassociate yourself from it (“I’m not a Republican”). What you can’t do is say, “Well, that’s just George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Steele, Glenn Beck, Hannity, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Andy McCarthy, Rich Lowry, et al. They’re not really representative of the GOP.”

One of the things I always find telling is when a person or institution stands for something, but won’t acknowledge standing for it. If you advocate torture, say so! Why go all mealy-mouthed and hide behind euphemisms like “alternate interrogation techniques?” Similarly, if you’re afraid and think the country should be afraid, too, why not say so? The GOP, by its rhetoric and policy positions, is indisputably the party of fear. And what’s wrong with that, if we really ought to be afraid? It’s the “Be afraid” rhetoric and positions, coupled with the refusal to own up to it, that makes me suspicious.