The liberal take on terrorism

Gosh darn, I feel great to live in a country that gives full constitutional rights to a foreign national who, on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, was tackled by passengers and crew as he reportedly was trying to blow up the plane.

If a terrorist fails to blow up a plane, he should get a court-appointed attorney. My big concern is that if Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab keeps telling the FBI there are others like him in Yemen, he may not get a fair trial.

After all, if U.S. authorities treated such a man as an enemy — if they interrogated him to glean information that could stop other planned attacks, as promised by the leader of al-Qaida in Yemen — then that would make Americans just like the terrorists.

Like Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., I support the Retroactive Immunity Repeal Act, which would make it possible for political activists to sue telephone companies that cooperated with national intelligence officials under the Terrorist Surveillance Program. They must be made an example.

As Dodd said, “We make our nation safer when we eliminate the false choice between liberty and security.” President Obama framed that notion a different way when he spoke in April of “the false choice between our security and our ideals.” Because if we have to choose between security and our ideals, after another big attack, our ideals will crumble.

Rand terrorism expert Brian Jenkins told a Senate committee in November that U.S. authorities foiled eight domestic terrorist attacks in 2009, while failing to stop shootings against military personnel in Arkansas and Fort Hood, Texas. But that’s no reason for Obama to pull back on his promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay and repatriate more detainees abroad.

True, the Defense Intelligence Agency figured in April that one out of seven released Gitmo detainees were “confirmed or suspected of re-engaging in terrorist activities.” Stuff happens. If newly freed detainees end up in an al-Qaida training camp, well, that’s the cost of making America look nicer.

When Obama said Monday that the American people “should remain vigilant,” I had to wonder: Is he turning into George W. Bush? If you ask me, it’s that attitude that sparks terrorism abroad.

That’s why Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano stopped using the phrase “war on terror.” To stop terrorist attacks.

It didn’t take long for Napolitano to retract her Sunday statement to CNN that “the system worked.” As she said, the remark was “taken out of context.” Really.

And you can’t blame her for telling CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley it would be “inappropriate to speculate as to whether” Abdulmutallab had ties to al-Qaida. Remember that after Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, some pundits were happy to blame not Islamic extremism but war-related post-traumatic stress disorder — even though Hasan had never served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

When Bush was in office, we hammered him on his failure to grant U.S. civil liberties to foreign terrorists. Now we’re stuck with our 2004 and 2008 campaign rhetoric. You see, the system does work. Until it doesn’t.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her e-mail address is

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