America has been introduced to the country of Yemen this past week. That introduction was a result of the failed bombing attempt on a Delta flight from Amsterdam to Detroit when 23 year old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was unable to ignite the explosives in his underwear. More precisely, the introduction to Yemen was the result of information Mr. Abdulmutallab provided to authorities upon his arrest and before he "lawyered up."
Republicans have criticized the President for allowing Mr. Abdulmutallab to get a lawyer so quickly. They employ the phrase "lawyer up" as if it were itself an act of terror when, of course, the right to a lawyer is one of the proudest hallmarks of our civilization. Yes, it was appropriate for the CIA or FBI to have a first crack at Mr. Abdulmutallab. And, yes, it was appropriate to provide him with an attorney at some point. We can debate at what point that hand-off from the intelligence services to the criminal prosecution should be made, and that debate should happen behind the closed doors of a congressional oversight committee. We certainly do not want future terrorists to know for certain at what point the hand-off occurs, as the hand-off, or promise of it, may be useful to the interrogator himself.
This is what the President’s critics fail to realize. We are not "caving" in the war against Islamic extremists by sticking to our own standards of civilized behavior, standards that require all criminals receive a defense attorney. Indeed, our ability to stick to our standards of civilization is a powerful propaganda tool in our effort to win the war against extremists. The decision to provide Mr. Abdulmutallab a lawyer is the reverse of the Bush administration decision to send suspected terrorists into legal limbo at Guantanamo: Gitmo has been a boon for extremist propaganda and, in the event, it did not necessarily serve to protect Americans. Mr. Abdulmutallab’s masters in Yemen were formerly imprisoned there and were released by the Bush-Cheney administration. If we had caught them, rather than their stooge, we might have delayed the arrival of counsel a bit longer.
The point is that we don’t know what the substantive consequences were of the decision to provide Mr. Abdulmutallab with an attorney at the particular time the provision was made. The Republicans are grabbing onto the decision as a symbol of what they think is the Obama administration’s softness on terror. But, it may be that the Obama team is merely smarter about confronting terror. And, it is certainly the case that the GOP critics are mistaking the forest for the trees in the way they often mistake the role and import of symbols. The current criticism reminds me of the way conservatives denounce flag-burning. They insist that no one should be allowed to burn the American flag. But, you can burn a flag but you can’t burn the flag, as the New Yorker’s Rick Hertzberg once pointed out, just as you can burn a copy of the Constitution but you can’t burn the Constitution. Even if the original in the National Archives were consumed by flame, the Constitution would live so long as we Americans enjoy the right to free speech, to freedom of religion, and the right to a lawyer. For eight years, the Bush administration stomped on the Constitution.It is a comfort to America and the West, not to the terrorists, that we now have an administration that honors that Constitution. And, honoring that Constitution did not prevent us from finding out from Mr. Adbulmutallab that his bosses were in Yemen.