Panelists Clash on Political, Legal Implications of War on Terror


Last Wednesday night, deep within a subterranean auditorium on the far outskirts of Harvard’s sprawling campus, three distinct personalities quietly clashed on the legal and political implications of the “War on Terror”. From academia came the eloquent voice of star postcolonial literature scholar Homi Bhabha. HLS’ own Professor Jack Goldsmith, a former Assistant Attorney General, contributed the insight of one who had worked in the halls of government. Journalist Ron Suskind added the impassioned pleas of a serial critic.Formally, the three were convened to participate in the Harvard Humanities Center’s ongoing discussion on “Drawing the Line” between liberty, security, secrecy, and transparency in the face of fear and uncertainty. The event, moderated by Bhabha, also included HLS lecturer Jacqueline Bhabha, historian of science Peter Galison, Radcliffe dean Louise Robertson, and Kennedy School lecturer Jessica Stern.

The most striking characteristic of the evening was, however, the emergence of subtle distinctions between Bhabha, Goldsmith, and Suskind’s approaches. Bhabha introduced the event with allusions to Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness”. He observed that the central concern of Conrad’s work was similar to that facing a society attempting to “draw the line in the war against terror”: the difficulty of locating morality “in the midst of the incomprehensible”.

Though Bhabha is sometimes criticized for lacking clarity – one of his books was awarded a prize for its inscrutability – many of his comments underscored an unambiguous perspective on where “the line” should be drawn. Those who go too far, Bhabha said, might await “moral and psychological disaster”. He implored the panelists to “examine the…political commodification of fear,” and to help achieve “a humane negotiation of security in public life”.

Still, Bhabha’s perspective amounted to less than a clarion call for vigilance against the abuse of power. He acknowledged the difficulty of balancing liberty and security when fighting against “those who are hidden of sight,” and appeared somewhat resigned to the indeterminacy and confusion inherent in the debate. “We will walk the corridors of power,” he said, “only to be lost in the maze” of its divisions.

Goldsmith was slightly more optimistic that some clarity might be achieved. He began by asserting that he did not believe the threat of radical terrorism had been exaggerated to enhance political power: rather, he claimed, the government was justifiably fearful of its inability to stop a future attack. “For decades to come,” he claimed, the executive “will be obsessed with [these] threats”.

The real problem, he continued, was the divergence of the government’s perspective from the people’s. The public, he said, fears the reach for power by the executive far more than the threat of terrorism. Reestablishing trust between the governing and the governed, therefore, would be critical in order to build consensus on where “the line” ought to be drawn.

Earlier wartime presidents, Goldsmith said, had attempted to educate the public about their plans, and had shaped their cabinets to achieve widespread appeal. The Bush administration, by contrast, has not been nearly as willing to seek democratic legitimacy. Yet Goldsmith claimed that, on those rare occasions when the Bush administration has taken its plans to the legislature, it has actually been persuasive and successful.

Beyond this, the nature of the current conflict would require a redrawing of “the line” between traditional wartime distinctions, such as alien/citizen or enemy/ally. Goldsmith offered the surprising example of nearly every inmate at Guantanamo Bay being a citizen of a country that is nominally a U.S. ally. Goldsmith concluded that the search for consensus and the unprecedented aspects of the present conflict that not one, but several lines would have to be drawn. Though Congress had appeared to reach a consensus on surveillance, for example, it had rejected the specific proposals offered on it by the Bush administration. Through political debate and public argument, various accommodations would be made, reflecting differing attitudes held on different issues.

If Goldsmith’s ideas emerged from a search for clarity and consensus, Suskind appeared primarily concerned with deconstructing and opposing the assumptions of the national security establishment. The journalist cited former Bush administration official John DiIulio’s comments about the capital being ruled by childish, misinformed “Mayberry Machiavellis”.

Suskind then strongly critiqued several attempts to “draw the line” thus far. He was clear that he felt fundamental values had been compromised. “If you forget to fight both morally and militarily, you will lose the source of true authority,” he observed. He also spoke on the subject of his recent book, the so-called “one percent doctrine,” which stated that one percent of evidence of a potential future terror attack was sufficient to treat it as a certainty for national security purposes. Suskind claimed it stood against “Enlightenment ideals” to act on such an insufficient basis.

Drawing on interviews with jihadists in Pakistan and elsewhere, Suskind then explored the security situation that was motivating movements in law and authority. He acknowledged that the world order had changed such that old norms made little sense; “individuals,” he observed, could now “harness the power of nations”. At the same time, he characterized the reactions of Washington officialdom as neurotically premature – Islamist terrorism, he said, possessed a patience designed to frustrate and outlast the “A.D.D.” of the U.S. government, waiting decades for some attacks and pulling the plug on others shortly before they were scheduled to take place.

Given this situation, he found the forces moving law to be suspiciously overwrought. “Fear has been managed brilliantly,” he claimed. The government “often deserve[s] zero trust” and “will use fear to get what [it] want[s], unless” people say otherwise. The implication was that the public should reassert its power through the democratic process. Suskind, therefore, ended with observations on various jihadists’ take on the presidential campaign. Plugging Obama, who he said was “a rock star for the moderates,” he noted that radicals tended to favor strongman Giuliani and, surprisingly, Mike Huckabee, “because he’s a cleric”.

However, neither Goldsmith’s intimation that “many lines” could be negotiated, nor Suskind’s blind hope for an angry and adversarial electorate, brought the clarity of consistency to the debate. The distinctiveness of their perspectives seemed to point toward the validity of Bhabha’s comments: society tends to lose itself in a labyrinthine web when negotiating the balance between security, transparency, and liberty.

All three, however, appeared to implicitly concede an important point – when action is predicated on secretive information, only those privy to secrets are able to claim the authority to act. The unanswered question lurking behind the debate, then, was to what extent “drawing the line” is merely the management of some inevitable creep toward oligarchy.

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