Given the reaction from some in the media over the recent arrests of suspected terrorists, a question arises. This question should be unthinkable it is so preposterous, but it is very real: Had the 9/11 terrorists somehow not died, would the national media be demanding civil liberties for Mohammed Atta?
On June 10, the government announced it was holding Abdullah Al Mujahir, a former Chicago street gang member once known as Jose Padilla, for plotting to explode a conventional bomb loaded with radiation on a major American city like Washington. Incredibly, several anchors sounded more like defense lawyers than journalists.
CNN anchor Aaron Brown littered his program with typical pomposity and attitude. He began: "An American citizen, Abdullah Al Mujahir, is being held in a military brig with no access to a lawyer, none of the other rights afforded to a citizen, because the government says he is part of a terrorist plot to detonate a dirty bomb."
What if the government is right and this gangster was out to pull a Chernobyl on the nation's capital? Brown quickly insisted he's not "interested in seeing a bunch of terrorists running around the country blowing up buildings and killing lots of people while they are out on bail." How generous. But he's also "not especially interested in seeing the government deny citizens their most basic protection against governmental abuse."
On ABC, Peter Jennings was unfairly attacked for snideness on September 11. He's now earned that reputation. On June 11, he announced: "So much has changed in these nine months. Today, the Bush administration often seems to be completely engrossed with the campaign against terrorism. The man who was accused of planning to attack the U.S. with a so-called 'dirty bomb' is now in military custody. Perhaps he'll have a trial some day."
After 24 hours of hostile e-mails, Brown returned to his CNN soap box to raise the question: "Here you have a man denied a lawyer, a formal charge, the presumption of innocence, something absolutely antithetical to American life. How can we avoid asking questions about the law in this case? What kind of reporters would we be?"
But it's a straw man to insist that critics don't want journalists asking questions of the government. Brown and Jennings aren't just being reporters with questions. Their questions are statements. They're acting as commentators with editorials, condemning the U.S. government for its treatment of terrorists. In their boob-tube bubble, where the questioners are morally superior to the answerers, they see themselves as the rebellious guardians of American tradition, nobly reigning in the exams of dictators and the appetite of the oafish mob. They are the ACLU of the airwaves, the only ones brave enough to fight for the rights of the unpopular, even if they are accused criminals and terrorists.
But criminals and terrorists are not just a test of civil liberties. They're also a threat to civil liberties. If you let a criminal loose, and he kills again, have civil liberties triumphed? What is the greater civil liberties violation: Ayatollah Padilla spending a few months in the brig, or hundreds of Washingtonians facing the very real threat of being killed or sentenced to slow deaths by radiation sickness?
That's why the case of Willie Horton had so much political resonance in 1988. Horton had stabbed a poor gas station attendant like a pin cushion, and Massachusetts politicians tenderly allowed him weekends off - to exercise his civil liberties when he attacked again in Maryland. It wasn't just a question of guilt or innocence. For liberal "civil libertarians" it was a feeling of mercy and solicitude for the guilty at the expense of the innocent. Now, by standing up for the liberties of mass-murdering terrorist groups like al-Qaeda it can easily look like Willie Horton multiplied by a few thousand.
Our government can't administer perfect justice. It couldn't prevent the massive taking of civil liberties on September 11. We are at war, and in times of war it must strike a balance. It must not only prosecute terrorism, but prevent it. We should not, cannot allow assailants bent on terror to have every liberty until they kill us. Is that how we honor the men, women, and children who died in offices and airplanes? Is that something we can explain to those who might be next?
Balanced journalism should demand nothing less: a concern for due process and the rule of law for everyone, not just for terrorists, but also their past or future victims.