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March 21, 2004
Why The Law-Enforcement Approach Doesn't Work

The AP reports on the legal front of the war on terror -- and the news is not looking good:

The post-Sept. 11 war against terrorism is suffering as much in the courts as in the streets with several legal setbacks involving suspected 20 members and other groups around the world. The biggest reversal came in Germany when a court threw out the only conviction of a Sept. 11 suspect. But other cases have been hindered, too, including against a militant Indonesian cleric and Zacarias Moussaoui, the only alleged Sept. 11 conspirator charged in the United States.

The U.S. reluctance to let witnesses in custody testify and the sheer complexity of cross-border investigations are mostly to blame.

The article goes on to define the lunacy of treating al-Qaeda terrorists as defendants in civilian courts. In order to defeat al-Qaeda, Western nations need to stop the terrorists before they strike -- and that means that a great deal of the effort must go into intelligence work. Building intelligence assets takes time and secrecy, which is hardly compatible with Western court systems. It's the same problem that the US government had to overcome when trying the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing. They only overcame the hurdles in that case because they planned on doing nothing further ... because no more crimes had been committed.

And that is the true limitation of using a law-enforcement approach against al-Qaeda terrorists. Law enforcement is by its nature reactive. In order to apply that strategy, you have to wait for a crime to be committed. Unfortunately, 9/11 made clear to us that we cannot allow that to happen again, and so we have to use other methods to stop the attacks before, rather than after, they occur. That's why we call it a war on terror -- it's both an intelligence and a military war at the same time.

The natural impulse of Western countries is to take those terrorists we can manage to capture and put them in the dock; some insist that this is the only way to prove the supremacy of the democracies over the fanatics. Hogwash. We aren't required to commit suicide in order to prove we're better than bombthrowers. If we are to avoid another 9/11 -- or worse, as the enemy claims that they have nuclear briefcase bombs now -- we must protect the integrity of our intelligence networks. Captured terrorists should be tried by military tribunals, where their rights can be protected, as well as our efforts to keep our nations safe.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 21, 2004 7:00 PM

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