Jose Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al Muhajir, once a mere Chicago street thug, is now the third American to be detained in connection with terrorist activities, and almost certainly he will not be the last. The first was John Walker Lindh, the befuddled child of middle-class, Marin County, California, privilege, who was seized in Afghanistan with Taliban and al Qaeda killers, and now faces trial in federal court in Virginia. The second, Yaser Esam Hamdi, was also captured in Afghanistan, where he first was identified as a Saudi. But then it was discovered he had been born in Louisiana. His claim to citizenship may be perverse, but Hamdi is an American nonetheless.
Unlike Lindh, however, Padilla and Hamdi are now in military custody, and are classified as "enemy combatants." Presumably they can be detained for as long as the government sees fit, even though some legal scholars and media commentators, of course, find this alarming. As Harold Hongju Koh, a law professor at Yale, told the New York Times, "If calling people enemy combatants is another way of holding American citizens indefinitely, it's extremely troubling. If they can charge him with a crime, they should try him."
But as Ruth Wedgwood, another Yale law professor, also told the Times, "If you go to war against your country, you do not have rights to a jury trial. And the answer to the practical question is that we are at war."
Indeed we are at war, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken over the weekend found that seven in 10 Americans approve of the proposed Department of Homeland Security, while more than six in 10 favor giving the FBI expanded authority to monitor public places. According to the Post, the poll "suggests the president retains the confidence of a nation willing to accept a larger federal bureaucracy and some loss of personal freedoms in exchange for increased security from terrorism."
The poll, in fact, also found that more than three in four Americans -- 77 percent -- say they approve of the way George Bush is handling the presidency.
Consider that as both good news and a sign of the administration's political adroitness. Congress may support the establishment of a Department of Homeland Security, but it will be swayed by its own political and turf interests in trying to enact the necessary legislation -- there are ample signs of this already -- and that means partisan bickering. But a popular president, one with a 77 percent approval rating, say, has the clout to get Congress to stop.
Meanwhile the political adroitness: Padilla, the Chicago street thug with the alleged interest in a "dirty" bomb, was detained on May 8. This was disclosed, however, only this week, by Attorney General John Ashcroft in Moscow. The White House insists the timing on this had nothing to do with politics, but some skepticism may be in order. The disclosure about Padilla was a useful reminder to Congress as it ponders anti-terrorism legislation and gets on with its hearings: America is at war.
It was also useful, I think, in quite another way. It clarified our view of the enemy.
In Our Brave New World: Essays on the Impact of September 11, recently published by the Hoover Institution Press, journalist Anne Applebaum, in a characteristically intelligent piece, notes that "capitalism, of which America has become the symbol will also continue to produce enemies in the future, and they will not necessarily live in distant parts." She points out that among the al Qaeda prisoners held captive at Guantanamo Bay were men from Western Europe -- three Britons and up to seven Frenchmen.
"These ten European terrorists," Applebaum writes, "were not just similar to us: they were us. Just like the al Qaeda activists who started dreaming of destroying the World Trade Center from their universities in Hamburg, the ten Europeans in U.S. custody chose to fight the West not because they were ignorant of the West, but because they knew it all too well"
And besides them, of course, there is the young man from Marin County, and now the street thug from Chicago. So yes, some of the enemy really are us.