A reader writes the most challenging and effective email I've read so far on this subject:
I thought one sentence in your reply was especially revealing, and it neatly crystallizes the true point of dissension over the best way to confront Islamic terrorism:
“But I do not believe, as Glenn does, that we are not at war with a vile, theocratic, murderous organization that would destroy this country and any of its enemies if it got the chance.”
What this tells me is that we still need to nail down our understanding of precisely what groups like al-Qaeda are really trying to achieve through the tactic of terrorism. Is it our destruction, or is it something else? The answer to that question is crucial for coming up with the appropriate response. If you truly believe that al-Qaeda’s goal is the destruction of Western countries, then wouldn’t logic dictate that Dick Cheney’s approach is the correct one?
If we are truly in a fight-to-the-finish, kill-or-be-killed existential conflict, then surely we are justified in whatever measures may be necessary to destroy them before they destroy us. What if Cheney is right that fighting this war “as surgically and as morally as we can” will not work, and the only way to win is a multi-generational war with no limits, including torture? If the United States faced imminent destruction without the use of Cheney’s methods, are you seriously saying you would permit that to happen? Once you accept the premise that Islamic extremism’s end goal is to wipe out our very existence, then I don’t see how we can in good conscience set limits on our conduct in fighting them.
If, on the other hand, al-Qaeda’s true goal is something else like, say, causing such damage to the West in terms of both civilian and military lives lost as well as economic devastation, that it began to change the internal calculations of our foreign policy decisionmakers then that is a different situation. We would at some point need to have an honest debate about what Glenn properly characterizes as our quasi-imperial role in the world, and the effect that our military actions have in fomenting the very hatred we say we are trying to defeat. We would, in short, need to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror, something we avoided after 9/11 and still haven’t done to the present day.
We would also need to recognize our enemies for what they actually are: not warriors (as they fantasize they are) but rather a band of extremely cunning gangsters with very concrete aspirations that have everything to do with their personal power and prestige, and less to do with killing us out of spite or nihilism. In short, nearly ten years after 9/11, we STILL don’t have a proper understanding of why it occurred, and that’s why we continue to make the same mistakes, over and over again.
Another: Two points I would like to raise regarding the debate between you and Glenn Greenwald. First, the US kills its own citizens all the time without due process (i.e. no court trial) every time a police officer decides to use deadly force. I'm sure a very good portion of these incidences are completely justified (like killing a burglar before he becomes a murderer) while an not insignificant portion are horrific such as the assassination of an unarmed and detained Oscar Grant by a BART police officer. If we can easily make distinctions like this everyday regarding our police, why is it so hard for Glenn to grasp this in times of war?
Second, the check on this power is having due process for those who take a life with the authorization of the government. We should not be saving from prosecution those who obviously abuse this extensive power, soldiers and commanders-in-chief alike. And the penalties involved for this abuse of power in the most egregious cases should include significant jail time an not just a resignation. To say that America must have due process in every situation without exception to save us from dictatorship is simply absurd when examined, as absurd as saying we should have none. Neither deals with the world as it is which exists in the messy gray between those two positions.