I have supported the “Republicans are wetting their pants and surrendering to terrorism” narrative in the last week, mostly because it’s true, but also because it’s at least somewhat shallowly satisfying to illustrate how people who portray themselves as fearless warriors are often the biggest cowards.
But there’s more than one way to knock down an argument besides pointing out logical fallacies, ignorance, and hypocrisy.
What I’m talking about is adopting an argument you disagree with as your own, and changing the end to support your views. This is intellectually dishonest if you fundamentally disagree with the premise, but can be perfectly reasonable if your objections are more nuanced than that.
One of the conservative/Republican arguments is that trying terrorists in federal court in New York is inherently dangerous (from the terrorists themselves) and may make New York a target for new attacks in the future from outside combatants.
These arguments are illogical because this country has a history of safely giving trials to terrorists, but that isn’t entirely persuasive for some. To go further, to “steal” the argument rhetorically, is to accept the premise that transporting and housing hardened criminals anywhere is an inherently dangerous proposition, but one that is subject to probability and acceptable levels of risk.
Acknowledging that fact takes the thunder out of the argument by agreeing that the underlying premise is correct — but for the wrong reason or because mitigating circumstances have been ignored — which then invalidates the contested conclusion.
Put into practice, this means acknowledging that transferring and housing terrorists in New York is dangerous, not because they are terrorists, but because transporting and detaining anyone suspected of a violent crime is dangerous. Once that premise has been accepted by those who advocate for civilian trials, the superfluous justifications can easily be deconstructed.
Justification A: Giving accused terrorists and enemy combatants trials in New York will make New York a target for terrorism.
Deconstruction: This justification assumes that New York is not already a target for terrorism. Since New York has been attacked twice in the past 15 years, and remains one of the most populous states in the union and a world-renowned symbol of America’s core values and heritage (precisely why it has been attacked previously), it is reasonable to assume that New York is currently – and will forever remain — a terrorist target, regardless of what we do with these specific trials. This justification is also contradicted by circumstantial evidence that applying due process to terrorism suspects and obeying the rule of law may actually have positive external effects, showing the Muslim world that America is not out to persecute and irrationally kill all Muslims, which could and has had the effect of dissuading support for radicalization overseas.
Justification A can be deconstructed by acknowledging that any increase in the possibility that the city will be targeted by a new terrorist attack is relatively minor compared to the current probability overall.
Justification B: Transferring accused terrorists to American soil will place Americans at risk from those accused terrorists.
Deconstruction: As was the case with A, justification B misses the bigger picture that moving accused violent criminals between two locations and detaining them anywhere is an inherently dangerous proposition, regardless of who the individuals are, but also that such movements have rarely resulted in problems of any kind. It ignores the military’s, FBI’s, Federal Marshals’, state troopers’, and local police’s documented history of safely moving violent and dangerous criminals of all kinds, not only between the many states, but from overseas as well. Transporting accused terrorists does not appear to pose any greater threat than moving an accused serial killer, domestic terrorist, drug cartel leader extradited from South America, or any other form of criminal. America has a history of safely moving, detaining, and trying people who fit into every single category above, including the original World Trade Center bombers. Moreover, as written about by Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, other countries have clearly shown that accused terrorists can be given safe, fair trials in civilian courts. Spain, Britain, Indonesia, and India have all given trials to accused terrorists in civilian courts without incident in the past few years.
Justification C: Accused terrorists don’t deserve fair trials.
Deconstruction: This one is a bit more rhetorical than it is logical, but there is mounting evidence that applying the rule of law and honoring core American values such as due process, presumption of innocence, and fair trials can have a significant and lasting negative impact on the ability of terrorist organizations to recruit new fighters. This justification is also troubling in that it would seem to pose a threat to our own justice system from within, attacking the notion that every person deserves a fair trial not because of who they are, but because that is how you guarantee to the best of your ability the existence of fair system for everyone. If the instinct of self-preservation exists, then it should be natural to defend advocacy of fair trials for accused terrorists if not only to ensure that you yourself also receive a fair trial, if ever accused of a crime. If we are to create separate and distinct levels of justice, where the rights one is given depend on the charges, which then largely depend on how much the state doesn’t like you, then we have effectively destroyed our “justice” system ourselves. What more could terrorists who hate America want than to see our justice system – which the entire world looks up to as an example of fairness – destroyed, ironically, by us?
Justification D: It would cost too much, and these people aren’t worth wasting money on.
Deconstruction: This would seem to fly in the face of common sense. Terrorists given trials in federal court may incur greater costs to the state due to increased security in the city, but no more so than a sensational trial of a celebrity like O. J. Simpson, or notable serial killers like the D.C. snipers. But there are other costs to consider, such as detention. Any terrorist sentenced to life would end up serving their time in an existing federal prison, exacting no more cost to the system and the state in which they are held than any other prisoner would. Contrast this to the millions of dollars that went into building the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, and the continuing millions that would be required to keep it open indefinitely. Also consider that the detention facilities there were not built for the purpose of holding detainees indefinitely, and may need significant upgrades to the facility infrastructure and greater human resources dedicated to guarding them that already exist in duplicate in every state in the union. One could also argue that federal prison authorities are better trained and suited for long-term incarceration responsibilities than the military is. Moreover, it seems reasonable to argue that tying up military personnel in this way is a waste of valuable resources that exist in short supply, that could be better spent on the on-going wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.
While these trials are undoubtedly risky, so are all trials of violent criminals, and not excessively more so for terrorism suspects. Being true to core American values such as fair trials and due process can protect the integrity of our justice system and serve as a strong deterrent against the recruitment of terrorists and the radicalization of Muslims overseas. And finally, there are cost benefits and matters of efficiency that argue strongly in favor of processing accused terrorists through our existing penal system.
Denying fair trials to terrorism suspects is not an argument that that can be won logically, or rhetorically. The
re is simply no case for it in a rational, civilized society and democracy.