How short the memory of even our more respected pundits. Take Thomas L. Friedman, who argued in the New York Times on Sunday that because we now face an enemy unlike any other, "Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft is not completely crazy in his impulse to adopt unprecedented, draconian measures and military courts to deal with suspected terrorists."
The argument, which polls suggest has vast public approval, is that the terrorists are uniquely evil, and while democratic measures may have worked just fine with other enemies, they won't work this time around.
"When we were at war with the Soviet Union," Friedman writes, "we saw the world differently, but there were still certain basic human norms that the two sides accepted. With Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, we are up against radical evil--people who not only want to destroy us but are perfectly ready to destroy themselves as well. They are not just enemies of America; they are enemies of civilization." But if the Soviets were not also enemies of civilization, why did Ronald Reagan define them as the "Evil Empire"? Why did his CIA arm Muslim fanatics to wage holy war against godless communism in Afghanistan?
If the Soviet leaders were not into "radical evil," why did Reagan insist that we build missile defenses against an enemy he claimed was serious about initiating and winning a nuclear war, despite the inevitable destruction of all modern life? The argument was that Russian communists, like Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban communists, did not value human life.
The assumption that we are at war with a uniquely evil force is dangerous precisely because it is again used to defend undemocratic measures that will destroy our society as effectively as any enemy might hope to.
What we are hearing is also the argument used during World War II to justify rounding up innocent Japanese civilians, who were said to be members of a uniquely evil race that produced suicide pilots.
Speaking of radically evil people, what about the German Nazis, only a small portion of whom were punished for the most ghastly crimes in human history? The vast majority of Hitler's fanatical supporters easily transitioned to life in the free world.
Evil does not stand still in one person, society or time, permitting it to be killed with a stick as in a childish fantasy. Even if one associates its occurrence with the work of the devil, there is in Christian religion the notion of winning that battle, raging even within one's own soul, and finding redemption.
A good thing too, or we would have a very hard time working with world leaders such as Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, Vladimir Putin, Gerry Adams and Nelson Mandela, all of whom were once associated with "terrorism."
To suggest that evil is immutable in a huge category of people called "Muslim fanatics" may appear to be a tough-minded stance, but it is naive. Evil is complex in origin, and its source requires serious examination.
True, the hard-core leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are war criminals. However, they should be tried in a fair and public manner, as were the Nazis at Nuremberg. What greater example of extending due process to people with whom we did not have shared values.
What is "completely crazy" is for Ashcroft to abandon the standard of due process--which would fully and publicly document the crimes--in favor of "draconian measures." That only serves the terrorists' purpose to destroy Western democracy.
Robert Scheer writes a syndicated column.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times