Every now and again, publicly or privately, people are nice enough to thank me for putting the “Blind Sheikh” behind bars. It is presumptuous to accept such accolades, since the effort to convict Omar Abdel Rahman and his underlings involved scores of other players. But that is not the main reason my pride quickly gives way to a gnawing regret.
In dancing on American graves after his 9/11 atrocities, Osama bin Laden was careful to credit Sheikh Abdel Rahman with issuance of the fatwa — the Islamic religious edict — that green-lighted them. The sheikh had announced the fatwa from the jail cell where he was serving his life sentence. “It is a duty upon all the Muslims around the world to come to free the sheikh, and to rescue him from his jail,” he declared. Regarding Americans, he demanded that “Muslims everywhere, dismember their nation, tear them apart, ruin their economy, provoke their corporations, destroy their embassies, attack their interests, sink their ships, and shoot down their planes, kill them on land, at sea, and in the air. Kill them wherever you find them.”
I haven’t been able to escape this memory in the ten days since U.S. special forces, acting at the direction of President Obama, stormed bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideaway and killed him with ruthless efficiency — the sort of efficiency that strongly suggests bin Laden’s death was the objective of the mission.
Nor was this a one-off. It is merely the most notorious instance of a curious Obama counterterrorism policy. As Rich Lowry memorably framed the matter, “Our policy isn’t ‘to shoot first and ask questions later’; it is to shoot precisely so we don’t have to ask questions.”
The Lawyer Left is the core of the president’s base. From its legions, Obama recruited his attorney general, the top lawyer in his State Department, and many of his administration’s most influential voices. Its signal achievement has been to make a legal and political hash of terrorists’ detention and interrogation. It has become far easier and cleaner to kill the enemy than to capture and squeeze him for intelligence purposes.
This is an extraordinarily problematic situation. As I’ve conceded before, my principal concern about candidate Barack Obama was that, in his maddening solicitude toward anti-American Islamists, he would abandon the fight against Islamist terrorists. I’ve been delighted to be proved wrong about that. Considering where I feared he’d come out, it seems downright ungracious to complain that we are killing when we ought to be grilling.
Nevertheless, given that our concern here is national security rather than good manners, we have to complain — at least about the policy, if not to its application in bin Laden’s case. As Rich points out — as have Michael Mukasey, John Yoo, Marc Thiessen, and other compelling national-security thinkers — intelligence is the most prized asset in any counterterrorism framework designed to prevent terrorist attacks.