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The devil we helped create

WHAT TIMING! Just when the attorney general and the president were coming under fire for the politicized dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys, the Pentagon released a transcript of a March 10 hearing in which Guantanamo detainee Khalid Shaikh Mohammed confessed to masterminding the 9/11 attacks. Now we can get back to the Bush administration’s preferred topic: What a heck of a job it’s doing in the war on terror.

KSM is a nasty piece of work. In the transcript, he claimed credit not only for the 9/11 attacks (“I was responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z,”) but for more than 30 other plots, from the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl to a plot to assassinate former U.S. presidents. In fact, there’s almost nothing to which KSM didn’t confess.

But if the administration hopes to regain lost political capital by shifting the conversation back to terrorism and KSM, the strategy may backfire. If anything, KSM’s recent performance highlights the downside of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 decision to declare “war” against Al Qaeda.

It goes without saying that military action may at times be required to combat well-defended terrorist organizations based in foreign states. But as a policy matter, the “war on terror” framework has been a predictable disaster for the United States. It led to a counterproductive overreliance on military force, an under-appreciation of the role of politics and community identity in sustaining terrorist organizations and a dangerous, “anything goes” approach to intelligence gathering that encompassed secret detentions and torture.

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Most ironically, the “war on terror” framework has lent legitimacy to terrorist leaders such as KSM, enabling them to present themselves as warriors standing up against a powerful -- and hypocritical -- U.S. military machine.

At his Guantanamo hearing, KSM was quick to exploit what he termed the “language of war.” “I’m not happy that 3,000 been killed in America,” he piously informed the military tribunal. But in war, “you have to kill.” The U.S., he implied, is really not so different from Al Qaeda. Just consider the innocents killed by U.S. bombardments!

By way of further illustration, KSM slyly offered the following: “I know American people are torturing us ... and I know it is against

KSM’s claim of moral equivalence may go over well with people alienated by post-9/11 U.S. policies, but it is dangerously misleading. U.S. failures and abuses are real and should be condemned by all of us. But nothing justifies the deliberate slaughter of innocents. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were neither legitimate acts of war nor some excusable “exception” but a hideous crime, a mass murder of appalling dimension.

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From the beginning, the Bush administration should have called terrorism what it is: an ambitious form of lethal and complex criminality that at times requires a military response as well as a political and police response. And it should have called KSM what he is: not an “enemy combatant” in a war but a brutal criminal, someone who, as Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton puts it, deserves the same fate as “child molesters and serial killers” -- ignominious trial and conviction.

Putting KSM on trial as the criminal he is would not have precluded U.S. military action against Al Qaeda targets on foreign territory. But it would have made it harder for KSM to wrap himself in the mantle of a freedom fighter and present himself as a “combatant” comparable to George Washington.

The 9/11 commission report noted the “grandiose” nature of KSM’s “true ambitions.” He intended to hijack 10 planes on 9/11, crashing nine and landing the 10th at a U.S. airport. Then, “after killing all adult male passengers on board” and “alerting the media,” KSM planned to “deliver a speech excoriating” the United States. What he longed for “was theater, a spectacle of destruction with KSM as the self-cast star.”

Last week at Guantanamo, KSM finally got his theatrical opportunity: the chance to stand before a military tribunal and proudly accept the mantle of “enemy combatant” in Al Qaeda’s war against the U.S. By declaring war on terrorism, the Bush administration ended up playing right into his hands.

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rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com


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