Bill Safire is a

November 14, 2001 11:46 p.m.

Bill Safire is a man so prone to bouts of interpretive and polemical wackiness that you’re well advised to take a deep breath and count to ten before deciding that you agree with something he’s written. But he’s also got a rich, redeeming streak of the more genuine, thoughtful variety of civil libertarianism. And this column seems like a choice example of that latter quality.

Safire takes aim squarely at President Bush’s recent order authorizing military tribunals to try foreign terrorists.

What’s on target about Safire’s critique, I think, is his emphasis on necessity. Like him, I think a lot of the recent anti-terrorist moves have been troubling but, under the circumstances, warranted. Roving wiretaps, the effective dragnet we’ve seen used against many resident aliens with even tenuous links to radical Islamic groups. Not great, maybe. But under the circumstances, they’re not causing me a lot of lost sleep. Quite the contrary actually.

When the issue is preventing catastrophic attacks on American civilians there are many things I’d be willing to countenance. On this count, I generally follow Lincoln’s reasoning when he defended suspending habeas corpus by asking rhetorically: “shall all the laws go unenforced except this one?”

Again, though, the question is one of necessity. It’s not the extremity of the innovation but what pressing need it’s meant to answer. In this case, it’s not clear to me what necessary functions these military courts can accomplish that civilian courts cannot. And, by definition almost, offenders who are in custody are not clear and present threats to innocent Americans. This is, after all, after they’re caught.

Some of the constrictions of civil liberties we’ve seen recently seem warranted as the only possible way to defend ourselves against imminent threats. Others seem to grow from a discomfort with due process or a penchant for authoritarian measures. I think this order falls into the latter category.

P.S. Coming soon, how Talking Points can take such a high horse on military tribunals when he himself recently called for government-sponsored assassinations of Al Qaeda operatives who played a part in the September 11th attacks.

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