TAKING TERRORISM SERIOUSLY….After noting that the most dramatic charges against Jose Padilla ? dirty bomber, apartment bomber, terrorist mastermind ? have now evaporated, just as they did with Yaser Hamdi, Zacarias Moussaoui, John Walker Lindh and (though he’s not on her list) Chaplain James Yee, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick makes a key point:

Had Padilla been charged and tried back in the summer of 2002, rather than touted as some Bond villain ? the Prince of Radiological Dispersion ? his case would have stood for a simple legal proposition: that if you are a terrorist, a supporter of terrorism, or a would-be terrorist, the government will hunt you down and punish you. Had the government waited, tested its facts, kept expectations low, then delivered a series of convictions of even small-time al-Qaida foot soldiers, we in this country would feel safer and we would doubtless be safer.

Instead Padilla, like Hamdi, was used as fodder for big speeches. They became the justification for Bush’s position that some people are so evil that the law does not deter them, that new legal systems must be invented ? new systems that bear a striking resemblance to those discredited around the time of Torquemada.

Exactly. The corrosion of civil liberties highlighted by these cases is bad enough, but it’s not the only problem they’ve caused. Every time a dramatic set of charges turns out to be baseless, it sends a very public message that the war against terrorism is just a sham, a campaign of partisan fearmongering being used as little more than a political club. This is the same message sent by the Bush administration’s misuse of intelligence, the lack of WMD in Iraq, the politically motivated orange alerts, the strategically timed marketing campaigns, and the transparent political stunts played by congressional Republicans last week in response to John Murtha’s speech.

The American public can hardly be expected to take terrorism seriously if it’s obvious that the Bush administration itself views al-Qaeda as primarily a political opportunity rather than a real problem. Sooner or later, we’re going to pay the price for this feckless and irresponsible approach.

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