Confronting Terror: 9/11 and the Future of American National Security
Edited by Dean Reuter and John Yoo
Encounter, 320 pages
I was on an American Airlines plane this year, on September 11, at 8:46 A.M.—the exact minute 10 years earlier when AA Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The pilot asked for a moment of silence and read the names of the crew members who died. It was a unifying and haunting moment for all of us on that lightly populated flight.
When I landed and checked out the news I had missed while traveling, I found an Internet war raging between right and left following a blog post by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who used the day to deride as a “deeply shameful…wedge issue” the response to 9/11 by President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “Fake heroes,” Krugman called them. Conservative bloggers returned fire, with Townhall.com’s Guy Benson lambasting Krugman for “imputing your unquenchable political hatred…onto a nation that, at least for the moment, isn’t interested in your malignant divisiveness.”
In Confronting Terror: 9/11 and the Future of American National Security, a fine and diverse collection of more than 20 mostly new essays, Dean Reuter and John Yoo perform an admirable service in placing between the covers a range of opinions that help explain the enduring ugliness we saw this past September. Confronting Terror accentuates certain commonalities among policymakers of both parties while revealing the ongoing, perhaps endless gap between ideologically divergent activists and analysts.
The most telling commonality appears, Reuter argues in his introduction, in President Barack Obama’s continuation of many of the national-security policies he had vigorously criticized on the campaign trail. The vice president of the Federalist Society and a former deputy attorney general, Reuter depicts Obama as the “antiwar, liberal candidate, [who] once in office and privy to all the intelligence available to the commander-in-chief, and with the weight of responsibility for the first time on his shoulders, has adopted some of the same positions as his predecessor.”
This continuity augurs well for the future, Reuter contends. “The fact that two presidents with strikingly different ideological views have arrived at similar conclusions strongly validates those policies,” namely, that “a robust, aggressive response to the attacks was and still is the correct response.”
Yet Obama has employed these robust policies while trying to maintain a political posture that contradicts them. He has lurched from vowing to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court to ordering drone strikes in Pakistan and surging troops in Afghanistan. As Victor Davis Hanson contends in an entry on Obama’s response to 9/11, “such ambiguity may put enemies off balance in the short term, but eventually antiterrorism policies and wars that were adamantly opposed in the past and only reluctantly pursued in the present become unsustainable—and dangerous.”
Yoo himself goes even further. Hated on the left only slightly more for his unapologetically hawkish views than for his unfailingly eloquent defense of them, Yoo served in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice under President Bush, where he worked on many of the most controversial policies of the war on terror. In his concluding chapter, he faults Obama for relying too heavily on drone warfare and for all but discontinuing the enhanced detainee interrogation methods Yoo helped put in place. He criticizes the killing of Osama bin Laden, suggesting that our failure to capture the terrorist mastermind alive caused “one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war [to] slip through American hands.”
To have it both ways is to energize critics on both political fronts, and the Obama administration’s ambivalence has inevitably stoked anger on the left. Two high-ranking ACLU officials—executive director Anthony Romero and former president Nadine Strossen—level withering critiques at both Bush and Obama in their essays, respectively, on military commissions and habeas corpus and on the balance between the executive and judicial branches of government. Romero reproaches Obama for “continu[ing] to limit access to justice and…assert[ing] broad, virtually unchecked power on issues of national security,” and Strossen blames both administrations’ aggressiveness and “judicial passivism” for imperiling “many victims of gross human-rights violations.”
Confronting Terror handles the controversial issue of torture and interrogations with an admirable attempt at ideological interplay. Celebrity civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz is pitted against liberal Jonathan Turley, and both are pitted against Yoo himself. Dershowitz recites the commonsense truth that “every democracy confronted with a genuine choice of evils between allowing many of its citizens to be killed by terrorists, and employing some forms of torture to prevent such multiple deaths, will opt for the use of torture.” Recognizing the fundamental tension between a state’s commitment to its citizens’ safety and its respect for civil liberties and transparency, Dershowitz urges the implementation of a “torture warrant.” This would aim to “reduce the use of torture to the smallest amount and degree possible, while creating public accountability for its rare use.” Dershowitz writes that “judicially monitored physical measures designed to cause excruciating pain without leaving any lasting damage” can yield positive results while leaving our values (mostly) intact.
In an essay histrionically titled “Nuremburg Revisited and Revised,” Turley passionately (though ungrammatically) roasts the old chestnut that “the greatest triumph for terrorists is not the destruction of a people but to get a people to destroy their own values.” He substitutes hyperbole for analysis when he likens the refusal of both Bush and Obama to prosecute waterboard-performing CIA officials with the defense of Nazi war criminals: befehl ist befehl (“orders are orders”).
Yoo—in Turley’s phrase, one of the “carefully selected government attorneys” who “validate[d] a facially unlawful program”—responds in his own chapter by blasting armchair quarterbacks who “conflate any interrogation method that goes beyond standard police-house questioning with a war crime.” Yoo’s painstaking, if occasionally hypertechnical, analysis reveals important legal and moral distinctions between the two. Coercive interrogation works, contends Yoo—as does former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen elsewhere in the book—and it does not, pace Dershowitz and Turley, contravene our values.
While Confronting Terror generally flows well, the editors occasionally make some odd choices, such as placing Hanson’s shrewd appraisal of Obama’s unenthusiastic prosecution of the war immediately after the reproduction of Theodore Olson’s passionate eulogy for his wife Barbara, who was on board the plane flown into the Pentagon; the juxtaposition of Olson’s poignant, personal, and unmistakably angry remembrance with Hanson’s dispassionate analysis is jarring.
In addition, certain selections lack merit in their own right. Bob Barr, the libertarian gadfly and former congressman, offers a bizarre entry entitled “Fear: The Tail Wagging the Post-9/11 Policy Dog,” in which he waxes conspiratorial on the evils of GPS, RFID chips, and biometric identifiers. In a responding chapter, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh resoundingly dismantle Barr’s claims. They present a full-throated defense of the Patriot Act, along the way recasting the tension between security and liberty into a virtuous cycle of “securing liberty.”
That there are divergent American views on war, surveillance, and justice is no shame. America is a collection of never-ending arguments about the ideas most vital to a nation’s existence. It is in the airing of these arguments that one can make either a shameful or honorable case. As an example of the former, one need look no further than the Internet sniping that threatened to contaminate an apolitical moment of national remembrance and solemnity last September.
Confronting Terror is an antidote to such tawdry shenanigans. Reuter and Yoo’s collection is guided by an intellectual modesty that allows for a respectful presentation of opinions openly critical of the editors’ positions. The prevailing spirit of principled but polite disagreement is likely the best we can hope for in this quarrelsome and still perilous time.