Fears of a Backslide

America’s briefly improving relationship with war is in danger of a serious backslide — all thanks to a single abortive attack on an airliner.

The would-be bomber apparently had ties with a number of former Yemeni Guantanamo detainees, released during the Bush years and known to have returned to terrorism. Although some former detainees have indeed “returned” to terrorism since their release, reports of terror recidivism have been greatly exaggerated, as even the initial publisher concedes.

Recidivism is surely undesirable, but it’s also probably unavoidable. There’s no such thing as a perfect criminal justice system: the question must be in which direction we want to deflect the likelihood of error. Only death or permanent detention can guarantee a suspect’s complete removal from the battlefield. The former is unacceptable off the battlefield; the latter may be appropriate in some, but not all cases. Contra Lieberman, McCain, et al, an utter halt to the release of detainees bearing a particular nationality constitutes a gross overreaction, dependent on the mortgaging of our most sacred values. The answer to both cases — when to release, and when to detain — must be tied to individual merit. Conservatives should accept, as the price of civilization, the fact that some guilty men may go free, although we must strive mightily to minimize those cases. And liberals should accept, as the price of a flawed world, the fact that some detainees should never be released, except into federal custody to await a federal trial, provided the evidence permits a certainty of conviction somewhat higher than that provided by your average grand jury indictment.

And in all cases, we must remember that often-forgotten lesson of the war on terror, and indeed every war: that overreactions have consequences, both in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of those members of the world community still waiting to choose sides. We deserve to win and to survive, but we must prove it, every day of our lives.

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