Improbable Cause

Pundits Square Off Over Secret Tribunals

While the narcissists remain holed up in their bungalows, engaged journalists are storming the barricades to denounce the secret courts, which William Safire calls "Stalinist" and The Washington Times has dubbed "a tribunal too far." The Las Vegas Review-Journal argues that U.S. courts were good enough to convict Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, and the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, while Anthony Lewis suggests that an international court would carry more credibility.

Cautious editorialists can always take the safe road, by using the "balancing act" that judges apply to square the competing principles of civil liberties and national security. But in the hands of opinion writers, balancing acts often turn into rhetorical exercises. Case in point: Charles Lane's November 25 Washington Post op-ed, in which he calls Bush's field day with civil liberties "quite defensible" compared to past offenses, and insists that a few constitutional breaches won't matter if this war eventually reaps a "net increase in freedom." Does Lane really believe that a democracy can justify its means with its ends?

Perhaps the best argument yet against the tribunals came from a foreigner, Israeli columnist Tom Segev. Writing in the November 25 Times, Segev pointed out that while Israel also uses secret tribunals, such limitations on civil liberties "have not made the country safer; they have made it more oppressive." Once introduced, he suggested, a totalitarian judicial system can be hell to dismantle.

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