John Tirman

The nation’s new terror

By John Tirman
November 27, 2009

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TWO EVENTS in the last month have raised the terror alert to red: the killing of 13 soldiers and police at Ford Hood, apparently by a Muslim psychiatrist, and the decision to try high-level 9/11 suspects in a civilian criminal court in New York City.

However, these events are being manipulated by the right wing to bang the alarm bells ever louder. From House Republican leader John Boehner and Republican Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan to former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson and blogger Michelle Malkin, many on the right are grandstanding on both events with such force that it is cultivating terror in the American public.

Consider the tragedy at Fort Hood. Major Nidal Malik Hasan is suspected of killing more than a dozen in a shooting rampage. Many are insisting that the Obama administration call this an act of terrorism, and several politicians have called for restrictions or bans on Muslims in the military, or worse.

What these demands impart to the rest of us, of course, is that Muslims in uniform - any uniform - are not trustworthy, that all are guilty until proven innocent. If a police officer who pulls you over for speeding has a name like “Ahmed’’ or “Mohammed,’’ watch out. One might even assume that any Muslim, not just one in uniform, is a threat.

This is the kind of attitude that sows terror. Consider the 9/11 trial in this same light. Several GOP congressmen have suggested that the presence of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other defendants brought from Guantanamo will encourage Al Qaeda to kidnap the judge’s daughter or the bailiff’s cousin; that New York City itself could be under siege; that the terrorists will use this “show trial’’ as a platform, and so on.

Of course, no law enforcement official has expressed any concern about the trial being in New York. Several other terrorist trials and 9/11-related trials have been conducted successfully in civilian courts without any danger.

What this outcry suggests is that the scare-mongers have no confidence in the police and FBI charged with guaranteeing public safety in New York and believe the US justice system is fatally flawed. It also suggests that they think America will somehow be damaged if the defendants are allowed to speak.

This fundamental lack of faith in American security, justice, and standing in the world is all the more notable coming from super-patriots. The ranting about this decision fails to see it as a sign of strength - that we need not bring terrorists to justice in secret tribunals, but are confident enough as a nation to openly accuse and prosecute them on evidence all can see.

The trial of 9/11 conspirators in an open New York courtroom sends a powerful message around the world about our trust in our democratic institutions. It is puzzling that this is lost on conservatives. And their grandstanding on the trial is plainly sowing terror as well.

So, who are the terrorists?

What we have learned in the last eight years is that the United States is remarkably resilient. Acts of terrorism, even those of the scale of 9/11, cannot bring down the republic, cannot so disrupt society that we are somehow in danger of a collapse or a takeover by malevolent forces from far away.

What we are in danger of is overreaction. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both responses to 9/11, have created more terrorism than any other single cause. The ostracism of all Muslims for the acts of a few is not merely unfair but erodes the better principles of our country: pluralism and tolerance, and welcoming immigrants, among others - but self-induced terror is not and should not be among them.

John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies. He is coauthor and editor of “The Maze of Fear: Security and Migration After 9/11.’’

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