Dispatches from the Creation Wars

An interesting threesome — Bob Barr, Grover Norquist and David Keene — has released a statement endorsing the idea of civilian trials for terror suspects and calling for a stop to the fear-mongering from the right over civilian trials and transferring the Gitmo detainees to a regular American prison.

I’m not surprised by Barr and Keene. Barr has abandoned many of his previous conservative positions in favor of libertarian positions over the last few years and this position is consistent with libertarian thinking. And Keene several years ago joined with Bruce Fein, Barr and John Whitehead to form the American Freedom Agenda, which called for the closing of Gitmo and the end of torture, warrantless wiretaps and many other constitutional violations by the Bush administration.

But Grover Norquist signing this statement surprised me. Why? Good question. Because I think it’s a good lesson for all of us, me included, on how to avoid using labels and categories to define someone completely. It is remarkably easy to fall into false dichotomies, to assign a label to someone — “conservative” or “liberal” or “libertarian” for example — and then believe that we have defined every position they take on every issue based on our preconceived notions of what the people we label in that manner believe.

It’s easy to start with this simple list of things conservatives believe and things liberals believe and things libertarians believe and then, when someone believes some portion of those things, apply the label and thereafter assume that they must also believe all of the other things on that list. But in reality, there may be no logical reason connecting one issue to another at all and there may be many people who accept some of the things on a given list and reject others.

And this is a perfect example of that. Norquist’s big issues are taxes and the size of government. He wants taxes cut and government spending cut in very significant ways. But that issue really has nothing to do with the question of how best to deal with terror detainees. The issues are not connected at all in any logically coherent way. It is only political convenience and coincidence that those who call themselves conservatives tend to agree with Norquist on taxes and spending but also tend to be in favor of Bush-era policies on terror detainees.

There’s no logical reason why someone who wants to cut taxes and spending should also favor military commissions over civilian trials for detainees. We presume that those who favor conservative position A must also favor conservative position D, even when there’s no common principle underlying the two positions. It’s a trap that is very easy to fall into, even for those of us who recognize such distinctions most of the time.

That’s why it’s a good idea to look beyond such labels and to ask someone what their position is on an issue rather than merely presuming what their position must be based on the label we have applied to them in our heads.

Here, by the way, is the text of the statement:

As it moves to close Guantanamo and develop policies for handling terrorism suspects going forward, the government should rely upon our established, traditional system of justice. This includes our system of federal prisons, which have repeatedly proven they can safely hold persons convicted of terrorism offenses.

We are confident that the government can preserve national security without resorting to sweeping and radical departures from an American constitutional tradition that has served us effectively for over two centuries.

Civilian federal courts are the proper forum for terrorism cases. Civilian prisons are the safe, cost effective and appropriate venue to hold persons convicted in federal courts. Over the last two decades, federal courts constituted under Article III of the U.S. Constitution have proven capable of trying a wide array of terrorism cases, without sacrificing either national security or fair trial standards.

Likewise the federal prison system has proven itself fully capable of safely holding literally hundreds of convicted terrorists with no threat or danger to the surrounding community.

The scaremongering about these issues should stop.

Using a state of the art but little used prison facility like the one at Thomson, Illinois – with any appropriate security upgrades our law enforcement professionals deem necessary – makes good sense for the tax payers who invested $145 million in the facility and who are seeing millions wasted every month at the costly, inefficient Guantanamo facility. It makes sense for the community which will benefit from the related employment and has absolutely no reason to fear that prisoners will escape or be released into their communities.

But most of all it makes sense for America because it is a critical link in the process of closing Guantanamo and getting this country back to using its tried and true, constitutionally sound institutions.

Bob Barr, Member of U.S. Congress (R-GA), 1995-2003; CEO, Liberty Strategies, LLC; the 21st Century Liberties Chair for Freedom and Privacy, the American Conservative Union, 2003- 2008; Chairman, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances; Practicing Attorney

David Keene, Chairman, American Conservative Union; Member, Board of Directors, National Rifle Association

Grover Norquist, President, Americans for Tax Reform