Fear and Responsibility: A Response To Glenn Greenwald

So Glenn Greenwald, responding to a post of mine on Twitter in his column at Salon, refers to me as a “right-wing warrior-blogger”. If I was unfamiliar with Greenwald’s work, I might think perhaps that he had confused me with one of RedState’s resident warriors, Jeff Emanuel or streiff or Caleb Howe; I’m a lawyer, not a warrior, and the closest I have been to a war zone was the day terrorists flew an airplane into my office, an experience I’m not in any hurry to relive or to see anyone else subjected to.

As it happens, this is of a piece with the typical Greenwald style:

Right-wing super-tough-guy warriors project some frightened, adolescent, neurotic fantasy onto the world — either because they are really petrified by it or because they want others to be.

I won’t call this an argument, in the sense of being a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition; it’s just shtick. Rather than bother trying to persuade, Greenwald is content to pander to his simple-minded audience’s desire to see his adversaries insulted. And the choice of the “fear” taunt is tied to one of the lingering obsessions in Greenwald’s writing, his fixation on masculinity.

But let’s take up the ad hominem on its terms, not so much to defend myself as to explain why people like me do not think like people like Greenwald. Is it irrational or somehow unmanly of me to “fear” that terrorists could cause harm if brought into this country? Would I be better to adopt Greenwald’s pose that terrorism is a “frightened, adolescent, neurotic fantasy”? Let me put it this way. First, I think I have, personally, a very rational basis for considering veterans of Al Qaeda training camps to be dangerous people. But you don’t need to have been personally affected by the September 11 attacks to want to prevent terrorists from causing physical harm to yourself or others. To keep this on a personal level, I have a home in a community, New York City, which happens to be Al Qaeda’s top target. I feel a special sense of attachment to and responsibility for the community I live in, and wish to see it protected (they even used to have a word for this feeling, it began with “p”). It’s easy for Greenwald to be cavalier about terrorist threats to the United States, since last I heard, he does not live here; he’s been living in Brazil for years. I also have a family, a wife and children. And it’s true: no man, no matter how brave or cowardly, can know true fear until he has responsibility for the lives of his children. Greenwald, so far as I know, has no wife to worry about and no offspring other than the multiple internet personalities he created to sing his own praises. If we must humor Greenwald’s dreary obsession with masculinity, perhaps he could learn something: what manhood is really about is using what strength we have to protect those entrusted to our care. And the first obligation of a man since time immemorial is also the first obligation we entrust to our government: to protect and defend against physical threats, especially from those who mean us and ours harm. Worrying about those threats is a sign of responsibility.

Let us proceed then to the merits of the argument.

In response to Greenwald’s argument for closing Guantanamo Bay to the effect that there is absolutely no danger in bringing its inhabitants onshore to the territorial United States, I noted, among other things, my prior writings on the attack by an imprisoned jihadist (Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a high-ranking Al Qaeda terrorist who was awaiting trial for the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania) in Manhattan on prison guard Louis Pepe. Greenwald’s initial responses, on Twitter? First this (emphasis mine):

Some right-wing blogger – @baseballcrank – answers that in 2001, a Muslim attacked a guard. Is there anything the Right doesn’t fear?

“A Muslim.” Now, personally, while I recognize that a man like Salim derives his murderous ideology from his religious beliefs, I would not simply equate a high-ranking Al Qaeda terrorist with “a Muslim.” But Greenwald wasn’t done; his high dudgeon prompted him to Tweet again:

Right-wing blogger: 8 years ago, a Muslim prisoner attacked a guard so now all Muslims must be kept in cages on a Cuban island with no trial.

Emphasis, again, mine. Now, besides insisting that there is no distinction between Al Qaeda and “all Muslims” he falsely attributes to me a sweeping position bearing no resemblence to reality. But hey, it’s his shtick, he can do what he wants with it. Greenwald liked this latter formulation so much he worked it into his column’s discussion of my response, even putting the whole thing in italics:

[T]hat’s a perfect distillation of the fear-wallowing right-wing mindset: hey, one time, 9 years ago, a Muslim Terrorist attacked a prison guard, so now we have to keep all Muslim Terrorist-prisoners in cages on a Cuban island with no trial because I’m too scared to keep them in an American prison.

Greenwald’s column argues that (1) there are already a number of terrorist prisoners held in U.S. maximum security facilities without incident and (2) there’s no shortage of prison violence as it is among non-terrorist prisoners. Both of these facts are true enough as far as they go, but neither gets him where he wants to go. To begin with, Greenwald obdurately refuses to face up to the central contradiction in his argument: he treats the security threat as if 100% of GTMO detainees will be automatically remanded, indefinitely, to SuperMax facilities. But that flies in the face of the whole reason why he objects to GTMO in the first place, which is that he wants the detainees tried in the justice system, which inevitably involves the risk that some will end up released or acquitted. He can’t argue on the one hand that they are no danger because they will all be permanently, securely incarcerated in an escape-proof hole and at the same time that some of them should be set free. Greenwald has, of course, his own arguments for why he thinks there’s no risk that evidentiary and procedural issues would lead to dangerous terrorists being released (or, as in the case of one recent conviction touted by the Obama Administration, sentenced to no more than 15 years), but his readers demand no more of him, and it would expose the holes in his supposed logical syllogism to explain this.

Greenwald also acts as if the detainees will be magically teleported, Star Trek style, from GTMO to their final destinations in SuperMax. But of course, in the real world, prisoners have to be transported into and around the United States, then held locally pending trial, entailing frequent trips to the courthouse. It was in such a local prison, the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Manhattan, where Salim attacked Pepe. While prison breaks are not as common or easy to execute in the real world as in Hollywood’s imagination, it’s unquestionably true that a prisoner poses a greater harm to others and a greater threat of escape when being transported or held in a local facility, even a local military facility not designed for such inmates. Consider the federal security precautions the City of Alexandria needed just to handle the trial of one man, Zacarias Moussaoui, as a result of which local (Democratic) officials and businesses are eager to avoid any more terror trials:

Moussaoui, who spent 23 hours a day inside his 80-square-foot cell, was constantly monitored and never saw other inmates. An entire unit of six cells and a common area was set aside just for him.

“It was a real hassle,” said Alan Yamamoto, one of his lawyers. “Bringing even two or three or four people over there is going to be a major headache.”


The 450-inmate jail was locked down every time Moussaoui was moved to the back of the nearby courthouse in a heavily armed convoy. Traffic was stopped as snipers watched from rooftops.

These precautions are common sense reactions to the reality that as bad as the most dangerous felons are, terror detainees present significantly greater threats. Let’s consider the ways:

-They are willing to engage in suicide attacks and believe they will go to eternal paradise if they die killing infidels. This separates them from the typical violent felon who at least has a strong instinct for self-preservation. The savagery of the attack on Pepe is a sample of this; another is the practice of jihadists in the field of feigning surrender so they could get close up and explode bombs to take themselves with their captors. Does any serious adult believe that there’s no distinction in the level of security needed to handle such people?

-They have a specific ideological hatred for the U.S. government and, thus, its employees, that goes beyond the ordinary attitude of drug dealers or gang bangers who regard the government principally as an obstacle.

-They are connected to international organizations with money and weapons and a powerful motivation to make trouble.

-They may continue to have valuable information they want to share with their un-captured comrades. Greenwald mentions the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel-Rahman, but he neglects to mention the fact that the Sheikh’s lawyer was convicted of helping him communicate his continued advocacy of terror attacks to his followers:

Prosecutors say she and two co-defendants helped her former client, imprisoned blind cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, transmit messages to the group’s leaders in defiance of prison restrictions.


Stewart defended Rahman, the Islamic Group’s spiritual leader, against 1993 charges that he plotted to blow up the United Nations, an FBI building, two tunnels, and a bridge in New York City. He was convicted and is serving a life sentence in a high security prison, where Stewart had numerous meetings with him.

From 1997 to 2002, Stewart and her co-defendants helped Rahman pass messages to followers in violation of government- imposed restrictions, prosecutors alleged. Rahman relied on the three to withdraw his support for the Islamic Group’s cease-fire with the Egyptian government, which the organization adopted after its 1997 attack left 62 people dead in Luxor, Egypt, they say.

-They may seek to radicalize other prisoners they come in contact with, a concern expressed by the director of the FBI. The recent incident of synagogue bomb plotters who had converted to a violent, radical strain of Islam in prison underlines this dynamic, although in their case the catalyst seems to have been a radical imam influential in the state prison system rather than fellow prisoners.

Assuming a 100% prosecution and conviction rate, none of these security obstacles is necessarily insuperable, as the Moussaoui experience shows: all you need to do is massively expand the manpower and resources dedicated to guarding each individual at all times, expend large amounts of prison space to keep them in solitary at every juncture, severely restrict their contact with outsiders and other inmates, surround them with federal personnel trained in handling the specific problems created by these kinds of detainees, and bring entire communities to a grinding halt every time you move them. In other words, try to replicate as nearly as possible a moving Guantanamo for each individual prisoner. Which raises again what exactly the point is of such an exercise, when the far more logical solution already exists for accomplishing all of these goals by holding the detainees collectively in a military installation designed and repeatedly reviewed and revised to fit the unique security challenges. Unless the point is just to give Glenn Greenwald something to do shtick about.