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Time to Rethink the War on Terror

"We're the land of the free and the home of the brave." (Image: Gayle Nicholson)

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When Eric Holder eventually steps down as Attorney General, he will leave behind a complicated legacy, some of it tragic, like his decision not to prosecute Wall Street after the financial crisis, and his all-out war on whistleblowers like Edward Snowden.

But if there’s one thing Eric Holder has done right as Attorney General, it’s his commitment to trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts.

As the New York Times pointed out yesterday,

[A]s Mr. Holder prepares to leave office, his success in reversing the Bush administration’s emphasis on trying terrorism suspects in secret prisons or at offshore military tribunals may be one of his most significant achievements. While he did not end the debate… the Justice Department can now point to a string of courtroom victories that his liberal supporters, as well as many law enforcement officials, believe has reshaped the government’s approach to prosecuting terrorism.

This really is a positive change. Trying murderers like Benghazi plotter Abu Khattala in civilian courts doesn’t just bring justice to their victims, it also sends a message to the rest of the world that America won’t sacrifice its core values in the fight against terrorism.

That’s really important because when the terrorists we’re trying to stop will do anything to make America look like a tyrannical force for evil, we need to preserve our principles or risk becoming the very thing the terrorists want us to be.

That’s something the Bush administration never really understood.

George Bush didn’t just lie us into Iraq or spend the first nine months of his presidency ignoring the 9/11 plotters, he also responded to the tragedy that was 9/11 in a totally inappropriate way.

Instead of rallying the world around America and working with international agencies like Interpol to track down and then bring to justice the people responsible for 9/11, he decided to fight terrorism with war, which, when you really think about it, is just another form of terrorism.

This was a huge mistake, and it has costs us lives both at home and abroad.

4,500 dead Americans and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis later, Iraq and Afghanistan are still nowhere near democracy and are both far worse off than they were before we invaded.

Meanwhile, the $4.4 trillion we’ve spent on Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade could have easily been used to send everyone in America to college for free for a decade.

At the same time, we now have surveillance state that’s as powerful and invasive as anything out of the former East Germany.

But the worst part is that this was all totally unnecessary. If George Bush had just accepted the Taliban’s offer to hand Osama Bin Laden over to a third country for prosecution in 2001, we would have been able to bring him to justice without wasting all that blood and treasure on two stupid and needless wars.

Instead, Bush did exactly what the terrorists wanted him to do. As Bin Laden himself said in a 2004 video message to the American people, “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.”

Thirteen years after 9/11, it’s clear who the losers are in “the War on Terror”: the American people and our freedoms. Which makes it all the more important that the Obama administration finish what it started by trying terrorist suspects in civilian courts, and ending the “War on Terror” as we know it.

Just over a year ago during his big speech at the National Defense University here in Washington, President Obama actually talked about winding down Bush’s War on Terror.

But with the rise of ISIS and Republicans trying to out-hawk each other during an election year, he’s been drawn back into another war in the Middle East. This President has put more thought into this war than Bush did into his, but it’s still a war, and thus the wrong approach to fighting terrorism.

Ultimately, war only fuels more terrorism abroad and erodes freedom at home. That should be obvious to everyone, given this administration’s failed drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia and its ongoing support for mass surveillance.

James Madison once said that “No nation [can] preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” and when you look at the past 13 years of American history, it’s pretty clear he was right.

So let’s stop this “War on Terror” business once-and-for-all and start fighting terrorism with law enforcement like sensible people.

We’re the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Let’s start acting like it.

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