The warped platitude of DC "centrism"

Even the most radical policies are hailed as "sensible centrism" as long as the right people object to them

Published March 13, 2010 2:14PM (EST)

(updated below)

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank dresses up in idiotic costumes, and the overriding attribute of his commentary is adolescent, above-it-all snideness, and he's thus deemed a wild, unpredictable, creative "contrarian" in Beltway media circles.  In reality, he's one of the most cliché-ridden purveyors of conventional Washington widsom one can find, as he demonstrates yet again in his column today, where he venerates Lindsey Graham and his quest to statutorily implement a system of military commissions and indefinite detention:

But Graham's latest offer should still be taken seriously by Obama's White House, which needs a way to recover from its self-inflicted wounds over Gitmo. Obama goofed twice, missing his deadline for closing the prison and then making the ruinous choice to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a criminal trial in New York.

This took an eight-year-old dispute to a new level of rage. On one side, there's now Liz Cheney's absurd accusation that Justice Department lawyers are al-Qaeda sympathizers. On the other side is the ACLU, which, in demanding civilian trials for 9/11 conspirators, ran an ad morphing Obama's face into George W. Bush's. . . . [T]the ideological purists on both sides need to compromise.

Liz Cheney advocates torture and indefinite detention with no charges, and just launched a repulsive McCarthyite smear campaign equating all detainee lawyers with Al Qaeda.  The ACLU has steadfastly opposed Bush's torture policies as early as anyone, advocates due process for all, and ran a newspaper advertisement pointing out the indisputable fact that military commissions and indefinite detention were the crux of the Bush/Cheney Terrorism template and urging Obama not to embrace it.   But they're on opposite sides of these issues and thus are equivalent:  they're the extremists and purists who need to be rejected by those in the Glorious Middle (embodied by Lindsey Graham).  As long both of them are against what you're doing, it means you're right.  Could a false equivalency be any more trite or vapid than that? 

Far worse is the specific, Graham-endorsed policy which Milbank endorses -- not by making any substantive arguments in its favor, but simply by declaring it to be in between Liz Cheney and the ACLU, at the center of the two "purist" extremes (which, in Washington, means, by definition, that it's superior regardless of content):

Graham has provided Obama a way out of this standoff: Send KSM to a military tribunal in exchange for Congress abandoning legislation that would deny funding to close Gitmo. Next, the administration would work with Congress to create a "national security court," which would govern how other current and future terrorism suspects can be held in preventive detention.

This is the so-called "centrist compromise" -- the one Graham (along with the Brookings Institution) is pushing, Milbank is endorsing, and the administration may be heading towards adopting.  But just think about what it actually is.  According to its advocates, there is and will continue to be a group of people whom we deem Too Dangerous to allow to be free, yet who have committed no crime and/or against whom there is no evidence of actual wrongdoing.  Therefore, we want to imprison them even though we can't prove they did anything wrong.  Thus, we're going to create new, special courts -- and christen them with the Orwellian title "National Security Courts" -- and empower them to approve the President's decision to imprison human beings in cages even though they've committed no crime (not even the extremely broad criminal offense of "providing material support to Terrorist organizations," of which anyone who even gets near an actual Terrorist group is easily convicted). 

This new judicial system will be devoted to imprisoning people "preventively" -- for being Dangerous.  In other words, we're dispensing with the idea that the Government can only imprison those who we can prove have committed crimes, and are instead creating by statute a new category of human beings -- people who have committed no crimes but belong in prison anyway -- along with courts to keep them imprisoned (this idea was unveiled in Barack Obama's "civil liberties" speech last May when he described the so-called "fifth category" of people, and I wrote about everything wrong with that proposal here).  But why stop with accused Terrorists?  Why not dispense with this "due process" annoyance entirely, and imprison all people who we know deep down are guilty of something really bad, or at least will be in the future -- such as those we know murdered someone or raped children but can't find the evidence to prove it (or those we believe likely will in the future)?   What decent person would possibly allow such monsters to go free just because we can't convict them in court?

That's the "centrist compromise" which Graham and Milbank advocate, and which the ACLU -- by virtue of its opposition -- is deemed by Milbank guilty of being the "purist" equivalent of Liz Cheney.  Aside from how radical such a proposal is on its face, it's actually a more extreme version of what George Bush and Dick Cheney did.  As a result of the Supreme Court's Boumediene ruling, detainees imprisoned by Bush/Cheney with no charges are now are entitled to habeas review by federal courts, and the vast majority have won their cases and been ordered released on the ground of insufficient evidence.  Notably, it was the "centrist" Graham, to his eternal disgrace, who led the way in trying to deny those innocent detainees the right of habeas review -- and thus tried to keep innocent people imprisoned indefinitely with no judicial review -- by sponsoring the habeas-denying section of the Military Commissions Act which the Boumediene Court invalidated as unconstitutional. 

Now, Graham (echoing Obama's May speech) wants to statutorily institutionalize this power of indefinite detention -- making it a permanent fixture of our political system and solidifying it as the bipartisan policy of all three branches.  As demonstrated by the truly dangerous, extremist bill just introduced by John McCain and Joe Lieberman (the "Enemy Belligerent, Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2010") -- which, among other atrocities, would allow the President to indefinitely imprison even American citizens arrested on U.S. soil -- it's almost certain that having this fear-mongering Congress write an indefinite detention bill would result in a much broader and farther-reaching detention scheme than even what we've had under Bush/Cheney and now Obama.  But hey:  Liz Cheney and the ACLU (with whom I consult) are both against it (Cheney's opposition is due only to the fact that the "compromise" would lead to the re-location of Guantanamo to Illinois) -- and one can find some Democrats and some Republicans who favor it -- and, therefore, it is, by definition, the sensible "centrist" solution which all non-purist-extremists favor.  That's the warped, childish, substance-free definition of "centrism" which Washington media drones like Dana Milbank constantly embrace, and nothing has led to more damaging policies than that.

* * * * *

The Washington Post Op-Ed page deserves some credit for publishing this excellent Op-Ed yesterday by Georgetown Professor Gary Solis, who points out that, under international law, CIA agents who operate lethal drone attacks are every bit as much "unlawful combatants" as the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters we have imprisoned, rendered, tortured and killed, because "they are fighters without uniforms or insignia, directly participating in hostilities, employing armed force contrary to the laws and customs of war."  He also points out that CIA officials involved in such activities are legitimate military targets of the enemy.  The same is true, of course, for the vast number of private mercenaries the U.S. uses to engage in war-fighting and related activities.  By the warped reasoning that has prevailed in our country, it would be perfectly legal and proper for these unlawful American combatants to be imprisoned indefinitely with no charges and even tortured.  If you advocate and practice lawlessness, it's only a matter of time before you're subjected to your own deranged standards.


UPDATE:  Just to clarify the rules of Washington centrism:  if you believe in this and insist on its adherence, then you're a purist-extremist who is the equivalent of Liz Cheney:

"I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine, 1789. ME 7:408, Papers 15:269.

You're also a non-centrist extremist who must be rejected if you believe in this and don't want to "compromise" on it:

No person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . . In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense. -- Fifth and Sixth Amendments, U.S. Constitution.

I hope those purity rules are clear, because in Washington they definitely are.

By Glenn Greenwald

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