Frontier Justice and the Frontier Mind

So, on a Friday the Thirteenth, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the five men accused of conspiring to commit the 9/11 attacks – and most importantly the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who actually says he was the mastermind, if you ask him under certain conditions – will be prosecuted in United States Federal Court – in the United States itself, in lower Manhattan in fact – actually about ten blocks northeast of Ground Zero. Amazing, and Holder was clear about what he was doing – “I am confident in the ability of our courts to provide these defendants a fair trial, just as they have for over 200 years. The alleged 9/11 conspirators will stand trial in our justice system before an impartial jury under long-established rules and procedures.”

That should be that – done. Holder has the goods on them, no matter what evidence is tossed out as the tainted fruits of torture or whatever, or he wouldn’t have called for this trial, or trials. You indict when you have the solid evidence of the commission of a crime by this party or that, and it is evidence that will withstand scrutiny an all possible challenges. That is, you are sure you can convict. It works the same for dumb-ass petty larceny as it does for religiously-politically-culturally motivated mass murder and conspiracy to commit it. You’ve played it all out, considered all the possible challenges that will come up involving evidence and venue and standing and all the rest, and know you can make your case, so you move for indictment and trial.

But of course it all turned into Security Theater – everyone striking whatever pose got them points with the public – the tough guy who knows these guys should just be strung up now, the defender of the rule of law who believes that the rule of law is what makes us who we are and we shrug it off at our existential peril and these trials should proceed, or the legal scholar who worries about the vague line between criminal conspiracy and acts of war, which is more unclear now than it ever has been what with these free-floating international terrorist organizations not affiliated in the slightest with any nation-state, which is something that should be thought through before we do anything rash. And whichever it is, you play to your own public, to your crowd. You don’t talk with those who have those other views – they’re fools.

Of course everyone wants justice. It’s getting there that’s the problem.

And add that Holder chose an odd time to make this move – a week or so after the shootings at Fort Hood, and all the talk about what that really meant and what should be done about it. There’s little question of who did what, although the motives of the Major who opened fire and killed twelve fellow soldiers and one civilian will be discussed for years. But he will have his day in court anyway, apparently a military court, as they get first dibs, and the outcome, a guilty verdict, is hardly in question. But still, he will be brought to justice – formally, by the rules. That’s what you do. And the business with the five 9/11 guys should be the same. That’s what we do here, we make things formal, so everyone knows exactly what they did, and how they will be punished appropriately, in proportion to the crime, so there’s no way anyone can say No Fair! That’s what we did at Nuremburg, after all. We’re not bloodthirsty, but we’re not fools who just accept vicious nonsense. We do justice, not angry and sadistic revenge. That’s who we are.

And that’s why the Fort Hood shootings confuse issues here. That event was too painful, and too infuriating, and recent. Take William Kristol, appearing on Fox News, who had a bone to pick with our current Director of Homeland Security and her comments on the Fort Hood shooter, that Hasan fellow:

I was very struck also by Janet Napolitano’s comment. I hadn’t read it before. To see her say that, that the number one priority is to bring [Hasan] to justice is such a knee-jerk comment and such a stupid comment. He’s going to be brought to justice. He is not going to be innocent of murder. There are a lot of eyewitnesses to that. They should just go ahead and convict him and put him to death.

Andrew Sullivan has a name for that way of seeing things:

Let us be clear: this is a fascist statement.

You begin to understand now why these goons instituted torture. They have total contempt for the Western system of justice, utter contempt for the rule of law. Kristol here is all but calling for a lynching. This is what “conservatism” has come to: the worship of violence and revenge. It makes the Cheney years more comprehensible, doesn’t it?

Well, yes, maybe it does, but it also tees up the Holder decision to be seen the same way. Everyone knows those five guys are guilty, so what Holder said in his statement must also be a knee-jerk reaction to that word “justice” and just plain stupid. The two events mutually resonate, reinforcing each other. What’s the point of a trial anyway? Just go through the motions if you really must, but it’s a waste of time and makes us look stupid. They die. Everything else is silly.

That’s probably why, as Amanda Terkel reports at Think Progress, Sarah Palin calls decision to try 9/11 defendants in federal court “atrocious” and wants to ‘”hang ’em high” – as you would expect. And of course it was the usual Facebook posting:

Horrible decision, absolutely horrible. It is devastating for so many of us to hear that the Obama Administration decided that the 9/11 terrorist mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will be given a criminal trial in New York. This is an atrocious decision. …

Criminal defense attorneys will now enter into delaying tactics and other methods in the hope of securing some kind of win for their “clients.” The trial will afford Mohammed the opportunity to grandstand and make use of his time in front of the world media to rally his disgusting terrorist cohorts. It will also be an insult to the victims of 9/11, as Mohammed will no doubt use the opportunity to spew his hateful rhetoric in the same neighborhood in which he ruthlessly cut down the lives of so many Americans. …

If we are stuck with this terrible Obama Administration decision, I, like most Americans, hope that Mohammed and his co-conspirators are convicted. Hang ’em high.

Terkel notes that Palin goes on being really unhappy that a “hung jury” or “court room technicalities” may allow the defendants to walk away from this trial “without receiving just punishment” and so on.

Does Palin really know the law that well? Yes, she does believe that the White House has some sort of Department of Law – she said if she were president and anyone said what she was saying was wrong, well, she’d use that department to sue them, which was one of the reasons she’d love to be president. No one knew what the hell she was talking about, but they let it pass. She had been going on and on about how the media had been picking on her, and how it was so unfair, so it seems the media decided it would be best not to feed the beast. So she made up a department of government that does not exist and never existed? It wasn’t worth fighting about. The price was too high.

But Terkel does argue the Holder’s decision to make terrorists face the civilian court system isn’t just an idea dreamed up by the Obama administration. There is what they call precedent. Terkel reminds us we’ve already successfully prosecuted 145 terrorism cases in federal court – you know, guys like the shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui. And she points out that Mister 9/11, America’s Mayor, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, praised the prosecution of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. And you have to love the quotes from 1994 she digs up:

“It should show that our legal system is the most mature legal system in the history of the world,” he [Giuliani] said, “That it works well, that that is the place to seek vindication if you feel your rights have been violated.”

Many who were bruised by the traumatic event were certain that no verdict by a jury or punishment by a judge will exorcise the pain and terror that remain. … Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani declared that the verdict “demonstrates that New Yorkers won’t meet violence with violence, but with a far greater weapon – the law.”

“I think it shows you put terrorism on one side, you put our legal system on the other, and our legal system comes out ahead,” said Giuliani.

Yep, the guys responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had just been convicted, and Rudy was a happy camper, then. And it seems that, even in the weeks after the 2001 events, Giuliani “framed the attacks in the language of crime, describing the hijackers as ‘insane murderers’ and calling for restoration of the rule of law” and all that.

No more of that. Watching Giuliani on Fox News now, Josh Marshall noted, “It’s amazing the utter contempt this man has for the American justice system.” It seems Giuliani issued a statement talking about “a pre-9/11 mentality” and how the Obama administration is “unable to identify and properly define its enemies.” And of course he added this – “This is the same mistake we made with the 1993 terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center. We treated them like domestic criminals, when in fact they were terrorists.”

It seems Giuliani changed his mind.

As for Sarah Plain’s points, about how the bad guys will get a forum to spout off, Spence Ackerman offers Who’s Afraid of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed?

He’s rather blunt:

What’s an actual insult to the victims of 9/11 is the idea that America is not strong enough to withstand the blatherings of a mass murderer. For me, the prospect of KSM grandstanding at his trial falls into I-wish-the-motherfucker-would territory. I want to hear how KSM builds a case against America, because everyone will hear how laughably conspiratorial and clownish it is. Think of what a cathartic moment it will be when America sees the face of the man considered to be UBL’s most efficient henchman and he delivers a pitiful harangue to a bank of cameras. No one will be emboldened to do anything but laugh. The only downside will be his inevitable discussion of how CIA operatives tortured him.

But he hopes the trail does more than that:

It should forever shatter the pernicious myth that al-Qaeda is composed of supermen – supermen against whom America has no choice but to alter its character and most precious laws in order to confront. I suspect we’ll have an Eichmann-in-Jerusalem moment – and sorry for the unfortunate Nazi al-Qaeda analogy; al-Qaeda are not the Nazis; but I couldn’t really think of any other parallel – except instead of the banality of evil, we’ll see the lunacy and vanity and self-absorption of it.

That’s because al-Qaeda’s weltanschauung depends on a myth that holds America to be implacably determined to snuff out the glory of Islam. In reality, most Americans couldn’t give a fuck about Islam and only started to know the first thing about it because of 9/11. But that America – an America bearing no resemblance to the actual America – will be what KSM seeks to counter-indict. It’s farcical, and farcical in ways that can only benefit the real America.

This is what Sarah Palin is afraid of. She hasn’t, I think it’s safe to say, thought it through.

The idea here is that she’s just one more on the right who has given in to terrorism, just like Republican House Leader John Boehner, condemning Obama’s decision to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York for trial:

The Obama Administration’s irresponsible decision to prosecute the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in New York City puts the interests of liberal special interest groups before the safety and security of the American people.

What special interest groups?

Glenn Greenwald says it’s all just giving into terrorism:

This is literally true: the Right’s reaction to yesterday’s announcement – we’re too afraid to allow trials and due process in our country – is the textbook definition of “surrendering to terrorists.” It’s the same fear they’ve been spewing for years. As always, the Right’s tough-guy leaders wallow in a combination of pitiful fear and cynical manipulation of the fear of their followers. Indeed, it’s hard to find any group of people on the globe who exude this sort of weakness and fear more than the American Right.

People in capitals all over the world have hosted trials of high-level terrorist suspects using their normal justice system. They didn’t allow fear to drive them to build island-prisons or create special commissions to depart from their rules of justice.

And he lists them – 1) Spain held an open trial in Madrid for those accused of that country’s 2004 train bombings, 2) the British put those accused of perpetrating the London subway bombings on trial “right in their normal courthouse in London.” And 3) Indonesia gave public trials using standard court procedures to the those who bombed a nightclub in Bali, and 4) India used a Mumbai courtroom to try the sole surviving terrorist who participated in the 2008 massacre of hundreds at that hotel. And the kicker – in Argentina, the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann, and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his crimes. What’s our problem?

It’s only America’s Right that is too scared of the Terrorists – or which exploits the fears of their followers – to insist that no regular trials can be held and that “the safety and security of the American people” mean that we cannot even have them in our country to give them trials.

Yeah, but they want to win elections. And this works, or they think it works.

And it may be a uniquely America thing, in fact, a cowboy thing. You know – Frontier Justice – the old cowboy movie where you’re way out west, on the frontier, and there’s no law really. The whole apparatus of the law hasn’t gotten there yet, or any part of it, really. That’ll come later, when the land is settled and you’ve moved on. So, for now, there are no rules, there’s only your personal code of honor. Of course you take the law into your own hands, as you must. Someone has to get rid of the bad guys. The cowboy-hero does that, saving everyone – then he rides off into the sunset.

We may not have national myths, but that one comes close. And George Bush was the Tall Texan, Cheney from Wyoming, and Sarah Plain comes from the wildest and furthest-west raw frontier, Alaska. The rules, such as they are, are always inadequate. You have your personal code of honor, which matters more. Of course her new book is Going Rogue: An American Life. She taps into the myth. Maybe Ronald Reagan was the one who made it a political myth.

But Evan Thomas argues in this week’s Newsweek cover story, that the Reagan style was one that might not have passed muster with Palin’s adoring fans:

Moderate Republicans – yes, they are not yet extinct, though most are in hiding- – scoff at Sarah Palin and wish she would go away. But she’s not going away. This week she’s going on-air with Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey to flog her new book… and to promote her brand of in-your-face, power-to-the-people conservatism. President Obama is no doubt happy to have her out there on full display. He cannot help but relish the prospect, no longer farfetched, that the Republicans will nominate Palin to oppose his reelection in 2012. A student of history, Obama could be thinking of his predecessor in presidential coolness, John F. Kennedy. In 1963 Kennedy’s advisers counseled against giving Sen. Barry Goldwater national stature by posing with the GOP’s conservative insurgent at a White House photo op. “What are you giving that SOB all that publicity for?” demanded White House aide Kenny O’Donnell. “Leave him alone,” JFK replied. “He’s mine.”

Obama knows the long odds against a right-wing populist winning the presidency, no matter how good she looks in a skirt (or running clothes), brandishing a gun. He shouldn’t be too cocky, however, because the death of the center is ultimately a problem for him and the whole country.

The problem is that Palin is far beyond Reagan:

Governing effectively requires a “big tent” approach to politics. To pass the New Deal and win reelection three times, Franklin D. Roosevelt built a coalition of labor, Northern liberals, and Southern conservatives. In a body politic that swings right, swings left – but never too far without swinging back again – it is impossible to win a governing majority without a coalition of true believers and moderates.

The two greatest postwar presidents understood this. Dwight Eisenhower governed in the 1950s by deftly uniting center and right, and Ronald Reagan did the same in the 1980s. They needed to be flexible to the point of gross expediency. To placate the far right, Ike shamefully refused to stand up for his friend and fellow statesman Gen. George Marshall, who was ludicrously attacked by Sen. Joe McCarthy as “soft” on communism. Reagan piously gave lip service to the right-wing social agenda while doing nothing to further it by legislation; he also chose George H. W. Bush to be his vice president and allowed the ultra-pragmatic James A. Baker III to run the White House. The “Gipper” talked tough about the Russians – while doing more than any other president to foster détente. With a slyness that belied their smiling patriotism, Eisenhower and Reagan confused and occasionally exasperated their own followers. But it’s no coincidence the Eisenhower ’50s and Reagan ’80s were periods of unusual peace and prosperity.

She doesn’t get it:

By definition, populist movements run on a fervor that confuses honorable compromise with appeasement. Everything is reduced to us and them. This is particularly destructive when it occurs within parties. During the Reagan-Bush administration, the Bushes of Texas (but really Connecticut) were never all that comfortable with the Reagans of Hollywood. But they worked at getting along. The easier course is to rant and rail on The O’Reilly Factor. That will get you a big cable-TV audience. But it risks turning off the larger public to politics altogether. And that can’t be good for the country.

As for the book, this book preview seems to bear that out – there a lot of score-settling and naming of names, of people who have stupid rules, and everyone picked on her because she knew the rules were stupid. And after reading an excerpt from Palin’s book, Ann Althouse concludes this:

It seems that Sarah Palin wasn’t able or didn’t want to bother to analyze whether she was ready to debut on the big media stage, and she wasn’t large-minded enough to think beyond herself to what it would mean for the whole campaign. That is, she was dumb. She was too dumb to handle campaign responsibilities properly, so she was clearly too dumb to step into the role of President of the United States.

Could she build up her political intelligence? Might she have it now or by 2012? If these two pages of “Going Rogue” are any evidence, she is displaying her weaknesses all over again, and she is still too dumb to be President. And, most scarily, she doesn’t know how dumb she still is.

But Palin would call it smart. She’s a frontier woman. The rules are not there yet, or what rules there are so far are stupid.

The same issue of Newsweek gives us Christopher Hitchens on Matthew Continetti and his new book, The Persecution of Sarah Palin – where the liberal dislike of Palin is no more than “a distaste for those who hail from outside America’s coastal metropolises; a revulsion toward people who do not aspire to adopt the norms, values, politics, and attitudes of the Eastern cultural elite.” It’s that cowboy thing, you see.

Hitchens is amused:

Sarah Palin herself can apparently never tire of contrasting her folksy provincialism with the pointy-headed intellectuals, and with those in the despised city of “Washington,” where her supporters want – it would seem against her own better instincts – to move her. To hear the woman talk, you would imagine that populism was a magic formula that had never been tried before (though Continetti and his colleagues at the conservative Weekly Standard eagerly compare Palin to the raucous demagogue and onetime Klan-fan William Jennings Bryan: remember – they said it, not me).

But the problem with populism is not just that it stirs prejudice against the “big cities” where most Americans actually live – or against the academies where many of them would like to send their children. No, the difficulty with populism is that it exploits the very “people” to whose grievances it claims to give vent.

Then there’s the question of character and personality, that personal code of honor thing:

Decades ago, Walter Dean Burnham pointed out that right-wing populists tended to fail because they projected anger and therefore also attracted it. (He was one of the few on the left to predict that the genial Ronald Reagan would win for this very reason.) Let’s admit that Sarah Palin is more attractive – some might even want to say more appealing – than much of her enraged core constituency. But then all we are considering is a point of packaging and marketing, where charm is supposed to make up for what education and experience have failed thus far to supply. We are further obliged to consider the question: exactly how charming is the Joan of Arc of the New Right, who also hears voices speaking to her of “spiritual warfare”?

I admit that I have winced at some of the lurid speculations about Governor Palin’s family life, and thought them unkind and tasteless even as I lapped them up. She now claims that Levi Johnston is a fabricator when he describes a wildly dysfunctional Palin household. So then: what if she’s right about him? It wasn’t the liberal elite media who dug up this scapegrace and nudity artist. It was the Republican nominee for the vice presidency who hauled the lad before the cameras and forced us to look at him: a fit husband for her beloved daughter and an example to errant youth in general. Once again, one is compelled to ask which would be worse: a Sarah Palin who really meant what she merely seemed to say, or a Sarah Palin who would say anything at all for a cheap burst of applause.

One does expect more from mythic heroes, and by the way, we’re not on the frontier anymore, and she isn’t that mythic hero anyway:

The United States has to stand or fall by being the preeminent nation of science, modernity, technology, and higher education. Some of these needful phenomena, for historical reasons, will just happen to concentrate in big cities and in secular institutions and even – yes – on the dreaded East Coast. Modernity can be wrenching, as indeed can capitalism, and there will always be “out” groups who feel themselves disrespected or left behind. The task and duty of a serious politician, as Edmund Burke emphasized so well, is to reason with such people and not to act as their megaphone or ventriloquist.

Sarah Palin appears to have no testable core conviction except the belief (which none of her defenders denies that she holds, or at least has held and not yet repudiated) that the end of days and the Second Coming will occur in her lifetime. This completes the already strong case for allowing her to pass the rest of her natural life span as a private citizen.

And in the same issue see Jon Meacham:

Richard Nixon sensed trouble. Seated in the cow palace in San Francisco at the GOP convention in 1964, he listened as Barry Goldwater said: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty – is – no – vice.” A 41-second ovation ensued. Then Goldwater continued: “And let me remind you also – that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” As Rick Perlstein reconstructs the scene in his book Before the Storm, Nixon reached over to keep his wife, Pat, from rising politely with the crowd. Later Dwight Eisenhower called the Goldwater speech an offense to “the whole American system.” The crowds did not care: Goldwater was one of their own, riding in from Arizona to take the GOP from the Ikes and the Rockefellers.

Goldwater was a seminal figure, and is too often caricatured as a nuclear cowboy by the left and as a conservative John the Baptist by the right. But as Perlstein’s reporting makes clear, Goldwater was seen in real time as an extremist, as the embodiment of unflinching conservative dogma. How unflinching? Well, it is striking that even Nixon wanted to distance himself from the nominee.

Now comes Sarah Palin…

And along with her comes Frontier Justice. And when someone suggests courtrooms and trials with rules of evidence, and the right to a competent defense, and the opportunity of the accused to speak, that just doesn’t fit. But maybe contempt for law is an American thing, part of life on the frontier. You can ride the coattails of that mythos to fame, fortune and political power, still, even now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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4 Responses to Frontier Justice and the Frontier Mind

  1. raymcinnis says:
    in the link above is a politico story about how the right is chastising obama for “bowing” to the japanese emperor.

    more rightwing triumphalism for sure.

    what i would like to know is where and by whom these scripts are written? certainly it seems that everyone of them is on the same script, but who — we ask — is the “playwright” behind the scenes?

  2. hoboduke says:

    This is an invitation for a lynch mob, and making the people of New York look bad to the world. If your brother, sister, mother, father was killed during this terrorist attack, then are you going to sit and see the killers laughing at you in the court room? What lunacy is this? This is inflaming a community that has endured and triumphed the greatest attack on our soil in history. I can see the police forced to arrest the victims families dragged kicking and screaming on television around the world. This is nuts!

  3. raymcinnis says:

    and because of a fear that all of this will occur, we forfeit our nation’s principles of justice? ask mayor bloomberg!

  4. hoboduke says:

    He got me free airfare to Las Vegas to leave town! He’s ok in my book.

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