The conservatives are arguing amongst themselves about George W. Bush's order establishing military tribunals as the trial of choice when it comes to foreign-born terrorists.

The two schools of conservative thought go like this:

The William Saffire school says tribunal power is way too sweeping to give to the government, that plain old jury trials are fine and are the American way, and that we shouldn't be eroding our rights in order to adequately try and punish people who set out to abolish our rights and our lives.

The Bush school in this argument says we might not be able to try some terrorists because the evidence against them involves secret sources we don't want to compromise, that actually conducting these trials will be a hardship on — and threaten the personal security of — the jurors themselves, and that we are not going to allow our civil rights to protect people who want to destroy the nation that created those rights.

Here's my take. I think tribunals are fine. They are not to be undertaken lightly, because they do abridge what would be the civil rights of a non-terrorist. But I don't think these terrorists have rights.

They are not criminals ordinaire, just trying to take money they didn't earn or killing someone for reasons they can't themselves explain. These are enemies. You don't give an enemy a trial. You give enemies the gallows. If you want to dress it up as a quasi-trial, you call a tribunal. Fine.

But the whole point of these proceedings is to convict and execute. Don't kid yourself. There is zero chance of an acquittal, unless the defendant can convince the panel of generals and colonels that they simply have the wrong guy — a case of mistaken identity.

Is there anything terribly wrong with this picture? No, not if you've got the right guy, and not if he was planning or involved in terror activities. I don't want to sound like a knee-jerk reactionary, but if this is war and not just a national fire drill, then these are enemies and not just common criminals.

And while a tribunal may make Spain or France hesitate to send certain defendants here for a trial, it is fabulous leverage for those we do have in custody. Oh, you don't want to talk? Fine, your tribunal trial is scheduled for tomorrow at 9 a.m. It will be over by noon, and we should have your needle ready in Terre Haute by 5 p.m.

Defendants facing a tribunal may become super, super co-operative. In this war, that's not a bad thing. When the war is over, the tribunal can go back in the closet.

That's My Word.

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