Current age compared (unfavorably) to Salem Witch Era

Glenn Greenwald’s The Lynch Mob Mentality observes that we have gotten to a very bad place, in fact a certifiable crazy-place, to use Dahlia Lithwick’s phrase, where the government’s claim that someone is a terrorist is reason enough for said person (along with anyone nearby) to be vaporized anywhere on the planet, even if that person is an American citizen.

Terrorists have no rights, and being accused is the same as being convicted.

Greenwald compares our current the irrational blood lust of our age to that of the Salem Witch Era, and finds it compares unfavorably to what had been the paradigm of superstitious arbitrary lawlessness.

[I]n fairness to the 17th Century Puritans, at least the Salem witches received pretenses of due process and even trials (albeit with coerced confessions and speculative hearsay).  Even when it comes to our fellow citizens, we don’t even bother with those.  For us, the mere accusation by our leaders is sufficient:  Kill that American Terrorist with a drone!


“Terrorism-derangement syndrome,” a phrase that should be forever enshrined in our cultural vocabulary…

… but won’t be.

Because we are all deranged. Duh.

Dahlia Lithwick , in yesteday’s typically despair-inducing and yet still somehow sparklingly witty essay in Slate, has really put her finger on one of the many bizzarro maladies afflicting the American psyche.

The real problem is that too many people tend to follow GOP cues about how hopelessly unsafe America is, and they’ve yet again convinced themselves that we are mere seconds away from an attack. Moreover, each time Republicans go to their terrorism crazy-place, they go just a little bit farther than they did the last time, so that things that made us feel safe last year make us feel vulnerable today.

“Terrorism crazy-place” is a pretty good turn of phrase too, I must say. Dang, she’s good.

Partisan Democrats might be tempted to play their favorite game and say, “See? It’s them!” but Dahlia is not pinning TDS all on the Republicans. “[W]hat was once tough on terror is now soft on terror. And each time the Republicans move their own crazy-place goal posts, the Obama administration moves right along with them.” Yes, the Repugs take the lead, but who’s making the party in control of everything follow along?

No, TSD afflicts both parties, and the general public as well. Definitely this piece must be read in full, but I hope I’ll be forgiven for quoting such a large chunk of it:

But it’s not just the establishment that opposes closing Guantanamo, trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or reading Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights. Polls show most Americans want Abdulmutallab tried by military commission, want Gitmo to remain open, and want KSM tried in a military commission, too. For those of us who are horrified by the latest Republican assault on basic legal principles, it’s time to reckon with the fact that the American people are terrified enough to go along.

We’re terrified when a terror attack happens, and we’re also terrified when it’s thwarted. We’re terrified when we give terrorists trials, and we’re terrified when we warehouse them at Guantanamo without trials. If a terrorist cooperates without being tortured we complain about how much more he would have cooperated if he hadn’t been read his rights. No matter how tough we’ve been on terror, we will never feel safe enough to ask for fewer safeguards.

Now I grant that it’s awfully hard to feel safe when the New York Times is publishing stories about a possible terrorist attack by July. So long as there are young men in the world willing to stick a bomb in their pants, we will never be perfectly safe. And what that means is that every time there’s an attack, or a near-attack, or a new Bin Laden tape, or a new episode of 24, we’ll always be willing to go one notch more beyond the rules than we were willing to go last time.

Some of the very worst excesses of the Bush years can be laid squarely at the doorstep of a fictional construct: The “ticking time bomb scenario.” Within minutes, any debate about terrorists and the law arrives at the question of what we’d be willing to do to a terrorist if we thought he had knowledge of an imminent terror plot that would kill hundreds of innocent citizens. The ticking time bomb metaphor is the reason we get bluster like this from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, complaining that “5-6 weeks of ‘time-sensitive information’ was lost” because Abdulmutallab wasn’t interrogated against his will upon capture.

But here’s the paradox: It’s not a terrorist’s time bomb that’s ticking. It’s us. Since 9/11, we have become ever more willing to suspend basic protections and more contemptuous of American traditions and institutions. The failed Christmas bombing and its political aftermath have revealed that the terrorists have changed very little in the eight-plus years since the World Trade Center fell. What’s changing—what’s slowly ticking its way down to zero—is our own certainty that we can never be safe enough and our own confidence in the rule of law.

“You never explain why they want to do us harm”

Glenn Greenwald rightly thinks this exchange reduces the brokenness of our system to its essence. It shows Helen Thomas repeatedly asking a very simple question, and the various ways White House terror expert John Brennan refuses to address  it.

(I especially love the journalist seated to her left. His supercilious stare over her shoulder, his fidgeting, his frowns. Finally, he just cuts her off and starts talking over her.)

Poor Helen. She looks like an exhausted wraith. I don’t imagine there was ever a time when White House press secretaries actually answered questions, but the mendacity took a turn for the worse not long after the dawn of the 21st century. I can only imagine this deranged, stylized theater of many words and no substance must be something saddening to her.

So back to the question of why. Writes Greenwald:

The evidence of what motivates Terrorism when directed at the U.S. is so overwhelming and undeniable that it takes an extreme propagandist to pretend it doesn’t exist.  What is Brennan so afraid of?  It’s true that religious fanaticism is a part of their collective motivation, but why can’t he just say what’s so obviously true:  “they claim that the U.S. is interfering in, occupying and bringing violence to their part of the world, they cite things like civilian deaths and our support for Israel and Guantanamo and torture, and claim that their terrorism is in retaliation”?

Can you spot the difference between Brennan’s attitude and the previous administration’s contention that “they hate us for our freedoms”? I can’t either.

Quite simply, don’t count on anyone with any clout in the national power structure ever addressing this question. As long as there is an insatiable, irrational, and evil entity out there, the military can’t be mobilized enough. The defense budget can’t be high enough. There is no battleground too distant. If this enemy had real grievances and demands, then maybe we could do something to improve the situation. Like pull our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq and stop our murderous Predator attacks in Pakistan, Somalia, and now Yemen. Might even save us a little money. A trillion here, a trillion there. Pretty soon, you’re talking real money.

But that ain’t gonna happen. They’re Islamist crazies who will stop at nothing short of world domination.  And the bombs must keep dropping, the supplemental budgets must be rammed through, the money, in short, must keep flowing.

It’s (show) trial time

Updated below.

A nation circling the drain can’t ask for anything better than a good show trial to take its mind off its myriad troubles.

I’m sure the trial will be an exemplary demonstration of cool, rational jurisprudence, and never mind the five other Guantanomo detainees who will be tried by military tribunals.

If you’re accused of being a Terrorist, there’s not one set procedure used to determine your guilt; instead, the Government has a roving bazaar of various processes which it, in its sole discretion, picks for you based on ensuring that it will win. Even worse, Holder repeatedly assured Senators that the administration would continue to imprison 9/11 defendants even in the very unlikely case that they were acquitted, citing what they previously suggested was their Orwellian authority of so-called “post-acquittal detention powers.” Is there any better definition of a “show trial” than one in which the defendant has no chance of ever being released even if acquitted, because the Government will simply thereafter assert the power to hold him indefinitely without charges?

Alexander Cockburn in Counterpunch:

Of course there are those who gravely lament the impending spectacle, the fakery of judicial “impartiality”, the pompous sermons about the rule of law, the hysteria, the howls for vengeance. Bring them on, say I. Let’s face it, we could do with some drama and American political life is at its most vivid amid show trials. Their glare discloses the larger political system in all its pretensions and   its disfigurements. The show trial is as American as cherry pie , as  the former Black Panther H. Rap Brown – currently serving life without the possibility of parole in the Supermax in Florence, Colorado – famously said about violence.

The meatiest part of the Cockburn piece comes courtesy of The real price of trying KSM, an excellent Slate article by David Feige, a former public defender, about the mountains of bad legal precedent that will come from all this:

At each stage of the appellate process, a higher court will countenance the cowardly decisions made by the trial judge, ennobling them with the unfortunate force of precedent. The judicial refusal to consider KSM’s years of quasi-legal military detention as a violation of his right to a speedy trial will erode that already crippled constitutional concept. The denial of the venue motion will raise the bar even higher for defendants looking to escape from damning pretrial publicity. Ever deferential to the trial court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will affirm dozens of decisions that redact and restrict the disclosure of secret documents, prompting the government to be ever more expansive in invoking claims of national security and emboldening other judges to withhold critical evidence from future defendants. Finally, the twisted logic required to disentangle KSM’s initial torture from his subsequent “clean team” statements will provide a blueprint for the government, giving them the prize they’ve been after all this time—a legal way both to torture and to prosecute.

In the end, KSM will be convicted and America will declare the case a great victory for process, openness, and ordinary criminal procedure. Bringing KSM to trial in New York will still be far better than any of the available alternatives. But the toll his torture and imprisonment has already taken, and the price the bad law his defense will create will exact, will become part of the folly of our post-9/11 madness.

Update: The last word will be to an old guy. Paul Craig Roberts, in the aptly titled “A Trial to Convict Us All,” reminds us that Thomas Paine  wrote in Dissertations on First Principles of Government (1790):

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.

Every principle of impartiality tossed aside that protects Those Who Deserve No Protection (like, uh, say, Terrorist MasterMinds ™, is another law WE lose to protect our own sorry selves. It’s a pretty simple concept. Been around for a while.

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