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Rule of Law vs. Rule of War: Are Media Missing the Lesson of Oklahoma City?

Jeff Cohen

Many media voices are enlisting in the push toward war. CBS anchor Dan Rather seemed more soldier than reporter on Monday's Letterman show when he endorsed the war drive and added: "George Bush is the President... Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where."

It's worth remembering that a similar push followed the last dreadful act of terrorism against America on our soil, Oklahoma City. Many in the mass media immediately began goading us toward retaliation against a presumed Arab, Islamic enemy. Columnist Mike Royko called for the overseas bombing of civilian infrastructures:"If it happens to be the wrong country, well, too bad."

The bellicose rhetoric came to a stunning halt as soon as it was learned that the anti-American terrorists were not from the Mideast. In fact, one was from the Midwest -- Michigan. The leader was Timothy McVeigh, who went to his death believing himself to be at war against the U.S.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from Oklahoma City is that our country did not take the bait. The U.S. did not declare war on McVeigh and his network of extremist fellow-travelers. The Bill of Rights and civil liberties were not trampled on the path to increased security.

Instead, McVeigh and his accomplices were dealt with as a democracy deals with mass murderers. They were apprehended, prosecuted and punished after being given trials, lawyers, the right to confront witnesses and challenge evidence. The armed fanatics who sympathized with McVeigh were not all hunted down and destroyed, but they've certainly been quieted. Many of us abhor the death penalty that was given to McVeigh, but the rule of law prevailed.

The terrorists behind the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon are more numerous, perhaps more dangerous and better protected than McVeigh and friends. Still, it's appalling how little mainstream media have discussed relying on the rule of law -- international law -- to pursue the foreign terrorists.

Few news reports have pointed out that there is one body under international law that can authorize military action: the United Nations Security Council. If the U.S. has strong evidence against Osama bin Laden and associates, and Afghanistan continues to refuse extradition to the U.S., the two countries could negotiate surrender of the suspects to a neutral country for trial (as happened with Libyan agents tried for the Lockerbie explosion). If that approach fails, the U.S. could present its case to the Security Council, which could authorize the equivalent of an international arrest warrant.

That the United States of America should uphold and adhere to international law is seen as preposterous, un-American and weak. In a piece titled, "To War, Not to Court," Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote: "Secretary of State Colin Powell's first reaction to the day of infamy was to pledge to 'bring those responsible to justice.' This is exactly wrong."

Fox News Channel offered a rare interview with an actual expert in international law, Francis Boyle of University of Illinois, who offered a step-by-step legal process for pursuing the terrorists -- which provoked an indignant Bill O'Reilly to decry "empowering the U.N." Days later on his show, one of the most watched on cable news, O'Reilly advocated bombing and destroying the civilian infrastructures of Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by attacks on Libya.

Listening to the Krauthammers and O'Reillys and leaping into unilateral action does more than undermine the rule of law. It isolates the U.S. instead of isolating the terrorists. Much of the world will see an excessive or misdirected U.S. military action as a tragic rerun of adventures that have callously injured innocent civilians from Panama to Iraq to Sudan.

And a new misstep will breed ever more anti-American terrorists.


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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an activist and author. Cohen was an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media" - and a co-founder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is jeffcohen.org.

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