For a free people in the age of terrorism, what is the proper balance between civil liberties and national security?
This debate wracks every Western country. Looking at America, the "united we stand" solidarity that followed September 11, 2001, lasted just some months, after which a much deeper divide emerged as conservatives proved far more profoundly affected by the atrocities than did liberals. The result has been the growing political acrimony of the past three years.
Many examples illustrate this divide. For the most recent, take the argument concerning Ahmed Omar Abu Ali between the conservative Bush administration and its mostly liberal critics.
Born in America to immigrant Jordanian parents, Mr. Abu Ali, 23, was indicted last week for plotting the assassination of President Bush. The prosecution asserts he was in touch with Al Qaeda and in 2002 discussed ideas of eliminating Mr. Bush by getting "close enough to the president to shoot him on the street," or by deploying a car bomb. Mr. Abu Ali's biography indicates how he might have ended up as an Al Qaeda operative.
He attended the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Va., graduating in 1999 as class valedictorian. As an outpost of Saudi values on American soil, the academy enjoys Saudi government funding, is chaired by the Saudi ambassador in Washington, and boasts a curriculum imported straight from Riyadh.
Thus, the first-grade teachers' guide at the Islamic Saudi Academy instructs that Christianity and Judaism are false religions. When one realizes that the curriculum is overseen by Saleh Al-Fawzan, who in 2003 endorsed the institution of slavery, this comes as less than a grand shock.
While still living in America, Mr. Abu Ali developed ties to the "paintball jihadists" of northern Virginia, nine of whom have served time in jail. In 2000, he went to study Islam at its source, at the Islamic University of Medina. In May 2003, a terrorist attack in Riyadh left 34 dead, nine of them Americans; a month later, the Saudis arrested Mr. Abu Ali for connections to this crime, incarcerating him until his recent transfer to America.
Conservatives focus on the hair-raising news that an Al Qaeda affiliate had plans to kill the president of the United States. Liberals hardly note this development, focusing instead on the question of whether, while in Saudi custody, Mr. Abu Ali was tortured (Justice Department officials call this an "utter fabrication"). Note the editorials in four northeastern newspapers:
The New York Times: This case is "another demonstration of what has gone wrong in the federal war on terror. In an undisciplined attempt to wring statements out of any conceivable suspect, American officials have worked with countries like Saudi Arabia."
The Washington Post: "the courts need to ensure that no evidence obtained by torture - with or without the connivance of the U.S. government - is used to convict people in U.S. courts."
The Baltimore Sun writes (dripping with sarcasm) that, "By unsealing a federal indictment against Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, the U.S. government garnered headlines about an alleged terrorist plot, instead of the unexplained imprisonment of an American citizen in Saudi Arabia. It portrayed Mr. Abu Ali has [sic] someone other than a victim of torture. The government may think its secret is safe. But it isn't."
Newsday's editorial is titled "Shame on Bush for rights violation."
These liberal analysts evince no concern that an American citizen trained by the Saudi government in Virginia will stand trial for plotting to assassinate the president. They decline to explore the implications of this stunning piece of news. They offer no praise to law enforcement for having broken a terrorism case. Instead, they focus exclusively on evidentiary procedures. They know only civil liberties; national security does not register. But, as Prime Minister Blair correctly writes, "there is no greater civil liberty than to live free from terrorist attack."
To strike a proper balance, Westerners must ask themselves what happens in case of error about the Islamist threat. Mistakes enhancing national security leave innocents spending time in jail. Mistakes enhancing civil liberties produce mass murder and perhaps a Taliban-like state (with its near absence of civil liberties).
Which emphasis, dear reader, do you choose?
This article is drawn from a presentation for the Federalist Society at Harvard Law School.
Oct. 11, 2005 update: See whether or not Abu Ali was tortured at "Was Ahmed Omar Abu Ali Tortured?"
Feb. 1, 2011 update: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a sentence of life imprisonment for Abu Ali.