Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 March 2010

A Sense of Perspective


The other day the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the politics of where we will try Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11. It noted how the President seems to have backed off from a strong initial position favoring trial in civilian court in New York City. In what purported to be a news article, not an editorial, it all but accused the President of shilly-shallying.

That article is emblematic of what, if it continues, will surely demote us to third world status in less than one generation.

I am on record as fully and enthusiastically supporting Attorney General Holder’s decision to try KSM in federal civilian court in New York City. But I also know the issue is the biggest red herring since Dubya and Karl Rove exploited gay-bashing and the “threat” of gay marriage to get close enough to the presidency to let the Supreme Court steal it for them.

KSM has confessed to masterminding 9/11. He is proud of having done so. Whether or not his confession is admissible in court, he will continue to assert it because he wants “martyrdom.”

Unfortunately, we are almost certain to give it to him. If we were smart, we would try and convict him of the crime of the twenty-first century (so far). Then, like the Europeans, who abandoned the death penalty as uncivilized years ago, we would warehouse him in some impregnable maximum security prison for the rest of his life. Every once in a while, we would trot him out to demonstrate our humanity, our high level of civilization, and our commitment to the rule of law. And we would steadfastly refuse him what he so earnestly wants, the chance to die with a bang, not a whimper―a bang that he hopes will provoke additional acts of terrorism against us.

But we aren’t smart. We haven’t been smart in anything that matters for a long, long time.

Instead, to appease our crudest apes aroused by our crudest and most primitive propagandists, we will make sure that KSM’s life ends by our own hands. And we won’t even do that right. If we really wanted to appease the mob and slake the thirst for vengeance in its breast, we would borrow a guillotine from the French and chop off KSM’s head on national television, in prime time, just as he chopped off Daniel Pearl’s. And we would replay the scene, in close up, with blood spurting from his severed arteries, at least as often as we’ve replayed the images of the Twin Towers falling.

But we won’t do that. In a ghastly compromise we will execute KSM in secret, with the usual three-drug regimen, or (in case of a military trial) a firing squad, with no cameras allowed. The primitives among us won’t get their red meat, but the terrorists will get their martyr.

If all this could bring back a single victim of 9/11, I would join the hue and cry for it. But it won’t. On any measure of the value of human life―helping others, contributing to society, or his own quality of life―KSM is no match for the lowliest secretary or dining-room busboy who died in 9/11. His death will not even budge the celestial scale. It will not console the grieving or ease their burden. It will be a cipher, a zero, a gnat lighting momentarily on the great scales of history, except in the minds of the terrorists we seek to defeat.

I think the President understands this. He knows that how we try KSM and whether and how he dies by our collective hands matters to the one-third or so of us who still believe in the Code of Hammurabi and (what’s more important) the people who manipulate their reptilian brains to win elections. So he’s using the gnat on the scales of history as a bargaining chip to move those scales on much weightier matters.

Nothing important in our nation or our culture (except perhaps our short-term self-respect), depends on whether we try KSM in civilian court or in a military tribunal. What matters is whether we get energy right, global warming right, education right and (to a lesser extent) health care right. Despite our universally recognized arrogance and self-regard, history writes us no guarantee. Societies as successful and powerful as ours (and far longer lived) have fallen into the dustbin of history. Ours will, too, unless we get the big things right and learn to recognize them.

Democrats are not the only ones who see the writing on the wall. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Southern conservative who often evokes my grudging admiration, seems to know, too. In an extraordinary interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, he recently described his desperate attempts to get out of the corner into which his party’s abysmal leadership has painted him and other thoughtful Republicans. Friedman quotes Graham as saying, “We can’t be a nation that always tries and fails. We have to eventually get some hard problem right.”

Trying a man who has repeatedly and proudly confessed to the crime of the century is not a hard problem. Transforming our energy infrastructure from the developed world’s most insecure, wasteful and inefficient is. So is educating all of our kids so they can once again compete in the top quartile of internationally recognized educational achievement tests. So is devising a health-care system that comes close to matching the more successful and far cheaper ones that our trading partners have had for decades.

A century hence, how KSM died will be lucky to rate a footnote in the history books. How we solve (or fail to solve) these other problems will rate paragraphs or pages explaining our nation’s resurgence or ultimate decline.

The President seems to understand the difference. Senator Graham may, too. But he served as an Air Force JAG officer and takes a great interest in how we try terrorists. If the President can trade off such inconsequential matters to get Graham on board for things that really count, he will be one senator closer to saving our country from the most precipitous, unexpected and rapid societal decline in modern history. Those of us who voted for him and still hold him in high regard expect no less.

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