395. "Throw Book at Terrorists Who Act as Civilians." USA Today (July 3, 2002) p. 13A.
In 1946, before the establishment of the state of Israel, I served in an underground unit (PalMach) of the Jewish community. We were fighting the British, who ruled over Palestine in those days. The Britons used radars to guide their navy to intercept boats full of Jewish refugees who were trying to escape Nazi-ravaged Europe on their way to their new homeland.
One evening, we attacked a radar station near Haifa. A girl and I, in civilian clothes and looking as if we were on a date, casually walked up to the radar station's fence at the same time half a dozen others did. We cut the fence and placed a bomb. It exploded, but the British shot our leader in the head and we retreated. We disappeared into the crowd milling around in an adjacent street. All the British could do was either indiscriminately machine gun the crowd or wait until their intelligence services identified and located us, two nearly impossible tasks. But if the British had caught us, we understood that we could have been hung or sent to a detention camp for the duration of the conflict.
What the USA faces today are a bunch of freelancers and self-appointed warriors whose leaders hide in caves or remote villages. Civilian clothes, as my experience highlights, greatly benefit the attacker, an advantage we as a country must deal with by almost any means necessary, or our homeland protection will come to naught.
In fact, many of the indignities we must contend with these days when we travel by air or enter numerous public buildings are a direct result of the threat of terrorists hiding behind civilian clothing. We would not have to show photo IDs or be randomly searched if they abided by long-established and widely observed rules of warfare. In other words, if they fought us like upstanding soldiers.
The British had every right to throw the book at me then, just as the United States today has the same right to deal forcefully with terrorists who masquerade as civilians, such as potential "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla and other al-Qaeda operatives. Legally, there's a big difference between an enemy wearing a soldier's uniform representing his country and a terrorist in civilian's clothing. The soldier, under the Geneva Convention, has certain rights. But a terrorist -- foreign or American born -- who tries to harm innocent people has next to none, in my mind.
The U.S. Justice Department argued this very point in a brief to an appeals court about enemy combatants. U.S. officials said these prisoners have no right to a lawyer and can be held indefinitely and that civilian courts cannot intervene. Similar authority will likely be used against Padilla, also declared an enemy combatant.
Or take Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber. The only way to deter this kind of assault (worse than mine, because he attacked civilians, not as unavoidable collateral damage, but as his sole target) is to severely punish such terrorists, something the Justice Department has attempted to do with Reid. We are also quite justified in monitoring his conversations with his lawyer for security reasons, to ensure that the lawyer will not be used to transmit messages to other terrorists ready to strike. Moreover, lawyers should be chosen from a list of those cleared to see some classified information.
Lawyers, including Reid's public defenders, draw numerous fine distinctions: among unlawful combatants, prisoners of war and visa over-stayers; between airplanes and "mass transportation vehicles." But my concerns are much more basic. For Reid (and for his ilk), we need to establish the fundamental facts that he is the guy who tried to set off the bomb on that flight -- two witnesses will do -- and that he is not insane. (That he planned the attack for months is proof positive.)
As I see it, under no circumstance should we endanger our national security, whether our agents or foreign sources, to accommodate some legalistic notion of a supposedly fair trial. When terrorists attack as civilians and seek to kill civilians, they put themselves far outside the protection of the law -- national and international.
What about U.S. citizens such as Padilla and John Walker Lindh? Lawyers say they are entitled to extra rights because of their citizenship. In my book, they are worse than Reid. It is bad enough for someone who is not one of us to assault America in the name of some misbegotten cause. It is far worse for an American to raise his arm against his fellow citizens.
The Constitution correctly brands such people as traitors. Let the lawyers fight it out as to what exact evidence is needed to declare someone a traitor. But ethically, we should call them what they are: a cut or two -- or much more -- below foreigners who terrorize us.
The judge in Lindh's trial accurately rejected his lawyer's attempts to have all of the charges against him dropped on constitutional grounds, as well as his attempt to move to another venue. The judge's ruling cleared the way for federal authorities to proceed with their prosecution of Lindh. An agreement was also reached on the use of classified documents.
I am writing here about those suspects caught red-handed.
We must draw the line when we merely suspect that someone is the enemy, but there is no direct evidence that he or she acted against us. Such was the case with Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist who was suspected, but never convicted, of spying for China. Here, we have to be careful not to open the floodgates to massive accusations or indictments of foreigners or Americans.
But as for the likes of Richard Reid, John Walker Lindh and Jose Padilla, throw the book at them. Otherwise, how will we deter the terrorists masquerading as innocent civilians?
"What about you?" one may ask.
I still believe that my cause was just -- but not the way I was fighting for it.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor at George Washington University, author of The Limits of Privacy and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.