Friday, October 13, 2006

Of Terrorists and Patriots

A chilling account of a craven terrorist attack in the latest installment of The Atlantic:

On October 6, 1976, shortly after 11 a.m., two young Saudi men boarded an airliner bound for the United States in Port of Spain, the sleepy capital of Trinidad and Tobago. Though only twenty years old, [Terrorist X] had been working on and off for five years for a Islamic terrorist mastermind based in Cairo, Egypt named [Terrorist Y], doing all manner of odd jobs, including photography and surveillance. He had recently recruited his friend [Terrorist Z], twenty-seven, to assist him.

[Terrorist X] was traveling on a Saudi passport in the name of [Name]. Two other passports—a U.S. passport with a bogus name and his genuine Saudi passport—were in his shoulder bag. [Terrorist Z] walked onto the plane carrying two cameras, one of which was stuffed with C-4 plastic explosive.

Twenty-four members of America’s national fencing team, many of them teenagers, also boarded American Airlines Flight 455 in Port of Spain, wearing the gold and silver medals they had just won at a tournament held nearby. The plane was to stop briefly in Barbados and Jamaica before taking them home to Miami.

Some twenty minutes after takeoff, [Terrorist X] pushed the rigged camera under his seat and walked to the rear restroom, where he hid an explosives-packed toothpaste tube. He was nervous, sweating heavily, and somehow jammed the door, trapping himself inside. A stewardess tried to pry the door open. Unsuccessful, she recruited the plane’s copilot, who kicked it loose, according to a passenger who disembarked with the two young men in Barbados.

Nine minutes after leaving Barbados, the pilot radioed distress. “We have an explosion on board,’’ he told the control tower. “We’re descending fast. We have a fire on board.’’ He asked permission to return to the airport. Then came a second, deafening blast. “Hit the water, Felo! Hit the water!” the copilot cried, as the plane started plunging. We have a total emergency!” the pilot shouted, and then the signal went dead. Sunbathers at Barbados’s Paradise Hotel watched in horror as the DC-8 dived into the sea.

All seventy-three people on board were killed: fifty-seven Americans, six exchange students and a young family from Guyana, and five South Koreans.

Reprehensible. Blood thirsty. Disgusting. If you asked the vast majority of Americans - be they Democrat or Republican - to describe the warped morality and perverse logic employed by the terrorists that perpetrated this mass murder, you would be met with an unequivocal statement of condemnation for the assailants.

Some would even go as far as to question the integrity of the religion espoused by the terrorists involved - coining phrases such as "Islamofascism" and "religion of death." Others might suggest that many millions (if not all) of the terrorists' co-religionists were complicit and, thus, culpable. It is these types of incidents that push widely popular figures in the modern conservative movement to suggest nuking a major city in the Muslim world, mass invasion of all Muslim lands and forcible conversion to Christianity for the inhabitants and other such militant exhortations.

Certainly if the current Bush administration were in office back then, they would not hesitate to label the incident aptly and take forceful and decisive action.

But would the morality of the above described incident change if we re-arranged some of the names and places? Would the displays of moral outrage be any less strident? The official reaction on the part of our government?

The answer is, apparently, yes. Allow me to explain. I took some liberties with the above excerpted passage in order to prove a point. Terrorists X, Y and Z are actually Hernán Ricardo, Luis Posada Carriles and Freddy Lugo, respectively. These men were not Saudi Muslims affiliated with an Islamic terrorist organization, but rather Venezuelan and Cuban Christians affiliated with a Cuban exile group. And the civilian airliner that was destroyed was not an American airliner bound for Miami with Americans and South Korean civilians on board, but a Cuban airliner bound for Havana with Cuban and North Korean civilians on board. All other essential details are true to fact.

Despite the roles of these men in this terrorist attack, and the implication of Posada and another terrorist operative, Orlando Bosch, in a terrorist attack on US soil in Washington, DC, that killed Chilean diplomat, Orlando Letelier:

...the Reagan and [first] Bush administrations hire[d] Posada and grant[ed] Bosch U.S. residency...

Posada had, in fact, a long and storied career working with the CIA and the intellgience agencies of other allied nations in Lation America dating back to the 1960s. Despite these official associations, Posada remained a busy and focused terrorist, developing a plot in 2000 to kill Castro by detonating a bomb during an appearance at a crowded auditorium at a Panamanian university (an attack that would have resulted, undoubtedly, in many civilian casualties). The reaction of the party of black and white moral clarity to this terrorist activity is somewhat confounding:

Posada made his last attempt to eliminate Castro in 2000, at a summit in Panama. This time, he was outwitted by Cuban intelligence and captured with his co-conspirators. All four men were charged with attempted assassination and convicted of lesser charges. Miami’s exile leadership led a spirited campaign to have them freed. South Florida’s three Cuban American members of Congress—Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—lobbied and wrote letters on official congressional stationery to Panama’s president, Mireya Moscoso, seeking their release.

Then came September 11, 2001. President Bush famously told the world that the choices were stark. “We’ve got to say to people who are willing to harbor a terrorist or feed a terrorist: ‘You’re just as guilty as the terrorist,’” he intoned gravely. Nevertheless, weeks before the 2004 election, Posada and his cohorts received last-minute pardons from the outgoing Panamanian president, who maintains a home in Key Biscayne, Miami.

In the Bush administration's defense, Justice Department officials have since arrested Posada - if reluctantlty - but they continue to vacilate on the appropriate next step in the legal process. The situation is a bit thorny - with Castro's Cuban regime asking for extradition, as well as Venezuela's government under Hugo Chavez. Neither destination is particularly appealing to the US government. The Justice Department has attempted to ship Posada to other less controversial locales, but there are no takers. Ironically, the reason the US has given for denying extradition to Venezuela is that the Venezuelan government might torture this terrorist suspect. I'm sure Maher Arar appreciates the richness of the irony.

Last fall, at Posada’s immigration arraignment, Joaquín Chaffardet, Posada’s partner in his detective agency and the former secretary-general of DISIP, testified that if the United States deported Posada to Venezuela, he would likely be tortured. The U.S. government offered no rebuttal, questions, or witnesses, so the judge ruled in Posada’s favor and denied Venezuela’s request for deportation.

In the meantime, the legal wrangling continues. Again, ironically, Posada's defense team relies on recent Supreme Court rulings against indefinite detention without trial for would-be terrorist suspects in order to argue for release:

The Justice Department is slowly amassing a case against Posada for masterminding attacks against Cuban targets, using U.S. sources of financing....

Posada’s attorney has pressed for his client’s release, citing a Supreme Court ruling barring indefinite detention. The government disclosed at a hearing in August that seven countries—Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador—had so far refused him. The federal magistrate, Judge Norbert Garney, expressed annoyance that the Justice Department had made no new inquiries to prospective countries since last November. On September 11, Judge Garney recommended that Posada be released. Should the federal judge concur with this recommendation, Posada will leave prison, but he could very well face more serious charges.

So much for the prohibition on nuance in the White House. The final chapter in this saga is not yet written, but there is ominous foreshadowing that a double standard might await in the denouement. In the epilogue, it might be revealed that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Or in this case, un patriota.

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