The Magazine

The Specter of Terrorism

Jun 17, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 39 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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"Our biggest problem is we have people we think are terrorists. They are supporters of al Qaeda. . . . They may have sworn jihad, they may be here in the United States legitimately, and they have committed no crime. And what do we do for the next five years? Do we surveil them? Some action has to be taken."

--FBI Director Robert Mueller,
quoted in the Washington Post, June 6

"You are quoted here as saying, 'Our biggest problem is we have people we think are terrorists. They are supporters of al Qaeda'--and you're keeping them under surveillance. I'm troubled by this. . . . [I]t's troublesome to have surveillance unless there's a really good reason for doing so."

--Sen. Arlen Specter, questioning Mueller
at an oversight hearing the same day

SO ARLEN SPECTER, our four-term, senior senator from Pennsylvania, thinks foreigners visiting the United States shouldn't be kept under surveillance unless there's a "really good reason" for it, and thus is "troubled" to learn that the FBI is now tailing people on the flimsiest of pretexts--like that they're "supporters of al Qaeda" who have "sworn jihad" and the Bureau thinks they're "terrorists."

We are troubled, too. We are troubled by Sen. Specter's assertion that he is troubled. And not just because the specific worry he raises here is altogether bizarre--though it is certainly that. More "troublesome" still is the fact that Sen. Specter's expression of concern for the civil liberties of visiting Islamic jihadist terror suspects is actually quite typical of the current debate about America's near-term homeland defense requirements.

In this respect: Three thousand people are dead, the movement that killed them fully intends to do it again, and the president and his Justice Department have proposed or undertaken myriad steps to deter such a renewed attack. We need to be sure those steps are proper ones. Which means we need to discuss them intelligently and thoroughly. And yet, time and again, whether the particular initiative or reform at issue is truly fraught with significance or plainly a no-brainer, a huge chunk of otherwise articulate America has proved itself unwilling or unable to engage the conversation on grownup terms. Instead, we get such as Arlen Specter's upside-down Martin Niemoller routine: First they came for Osama bin Laden's second-strike foot soldiers, and I said nothing.

This is fatuous and it will not do. There are other, vastly more important and productive questions to be asked about the post-September 11 performance of George W. Bush's executive branch than "Does this mean we're living in a police state?" It should little relieve us that the correct answer is no, after all; we have a right to expect as much, at minimum. We also have a right to be disgusted that so many purportedly serious voices in our politics have repeatedly granted themselves leave to suggest the answer might be yes--and have thereby gone AWOL from their duty to make a substantive contribution to democratic deliberations about a national emergency. The president and his aides do not have a monopoly on wisdom about how best to prevent the next World Trade Center atrocity. They need--and should want--some real, detailed criticism of their ideas. They are manifestly not receiving it.

Last week Attorney General Ashcroft announced that the Immigration and Naturalization Service would soon implement a formal registration system for temporary foreign visitors traveling to America on passports issued by certain Middle Eastern countries known to export terrorism. Registrants will be fingerprinted and photographed at ports of entry, and required to notify the INS of any change of address they might make while here. Theoretically at least, it's a perfectly sensible, legally uncomplicated program that hardly represents a dramatic break with past practice. In fact, the INS is supposed to be registering all non-citizens this way already--according to a law first enacted in 1952 and routinely enforced without controversy until the mid-1980s, when the Service decided it could no longer handle the logistical burden and quietly gave up tracking people visiting on temporary visas. Really, now: Why should permanent U.S. residents carrying green cards be forced to register with the INS, as still they are, when the likes of Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid are not?