Saturday, August 06, 2005

An embarrasment to conservatives indeed

One of the joys of vacations to places devoid of electricity is that you can finally escape the barrage of idiocy from right-wing gits who now populate so much of our national discourse.

But you always have to come back home, and when you do, you inevitably find that they've gone and soiled the carpet again.

It was over a week ago that they did so, attacking Judge John Coughenour's sentencing for Al Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Ressam.

It wasn't just that Coughenour gave Ressam what they considered a light sentence (22 years, instead of the 35 sought by prosecutors). What really stirred their ire was that Coughenour -- a Reagan appointee largely considered a conservative on the court -- laid into the current regime's handling of similar cases under the aegis of the "war on terror", especially through military tribunals free of court oversight.

In a commentary on the ruling, Coughenour had the audacity to say the following:
I've done my very best to arrive at a period of confinement that appropriately recognizes the severity of the intended offense, but also recognizes the practicalities of the parties' positions before trial and the cooperation of Mr. Ressam, even though it did terminate prematurely.

"The message I would hope to convey in today's sentencing is twofold:

"First, that we have the resolve in this country to deal with the subject of terrorism and people who engage in it should be prepared to sacrifice a major portion of their life in confinement.

"Secondly, though, I would like to convey the message that our system works. We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, or detain the defendant indefinitely as an enemy combatant, or deny him the right to counsel, or invoke any proceedings beyond those guaranteed by or contrary to the United States Constitution.

"I would suggest that the message to the world from today's sentencing is that our courts have not abandoned our commitment to the ideals that set our nation apart. We can deal with the threats to our national security without denying the accused fundamental constitutional protections.

"Despite the fact that Mr. Ressam is not an American citizen and despite the fact that he entered this country intent upon killing American citizens, he received an effective, vigorous defense, and the opportunity to have his guilt or innocence determined by a jury of 12 ordinary citizens.

"Most importantly, all of this occurred in the sunlight of a public trial. There were no secret proceedings, no indefinite detention, no denial of counsel.

"The tragedy of September 11th shook our sense of security and made us realize that we, too, are vulnerable to acts of terrorism.

"Unfortunately, some believe that this threat renders our Constitution obsolete. This is a Constitution for which men and women have died and continue to die and which has made us a model among nations. If that view is allowed to prevail, the terrorists will have won.

"It is my sworn duty, and as long as there is breath in my body I'll perform it, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We will be in recess."

Perhaps the most noxious of the right-wing responses came from Michelle Malkin, who proceeded to call Judge Coughenour "the terrorists' little helper" and "an embarrassment to conservatives and an impediment to winning the War on Terror," as well as "a fool and a threat." As usual with Malkin, it was a classic case of projection.

It was actually Hugh Hewitt who led the charge against Coughenour, opining:
Whatever the message the judge hoped to send, the one he in fact did send was to Islamicists all around the globe: Come to America. Try and kill us. Either you succeed and get to your version of heaven, or you'll get a second chance 22 years later after spending a couple of decades setting up networks that can help you with round 2.

The arrogance of this renegade judge's lecture is simply beyond belief. Congress should summon the judge to testify as to his inane remarks, but precede and follow his appearnce with panels comprised of vitims of terror and the families of military killed in the war.

The real "arrogance beyond belief" lies in these attacks, made by a pack of ideologues who specialize in disinformation and whose only interest is in stifling any criticism of the grotesqueries of the "war on terror" as waged by conservatives.

Because the truth is that Judge John Coughenour has already done more to combat terrorism on American soil than any of these twits will conceive of achieving in their lifetimes. Moreover, I have no doubt he will continue to do so.

I have sat in on Judge Coughenour's court proceedings on many occasions, largely because he has been handed, over the years, a large number of the criminal cases arising from right-wing extremists in the Pacific Northwest. These include a number of terrorist plots, as well as the Montana Freemen, who were responsible for the longest armed standoff with law-enforcement officials (81 days) in American history.

He certainly is no fool when it comes to dealing with extremists. I watched him bring an abrupt end to Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer's fondness for erupting in federal court with claims that the courts had no legitimacy and that he was a political prisoner. I saw him deal swiftly and decisively when defense attorneys in the Washington State Militia bomb-building case tried to give jurors a "jury nullification" pamphlet. Throughout these proceedings, he was always fair, but he quickly shut down anyone who got out of line.

He was the model, in fact, of the no-nonsense federal judge. Coughenour is indeed a conservative jurist with very firm and unmistakable views about the respective roles of the law and the courts and the rights of American citizens. It's clear that, like many conservatives, he regards government power over citizens' rights as something best held in restraint. Defense attorneys in his courtroom have to be quick on their feet, since he rarely gives them a break, yet he also can be tough on prosecutors, particularly those who ignore his instructions or, worse, tread into areas of potential prosecutorial abuse. He also is very disciplined and exacting; no one is late for any proceeding in his courtrooms, and no one comes improperly attired.

I recently described Coughenour's handling of another recent case involving right-wing scam artists. Worth noting: Even though prosecutors asked for a 25-year sentence -- and Coughenour noted he had plenty of reason for acceding to their requests -- he gave the scam artists 15 years instead.

In fact, that has been characteristic of nearly all of Coughenour's proceedings: the outcome always just, always tempered, always striving for real justice. In the Montana Freemen case, he threw the proverbial book at Schweitzer, the Pied Piper who had led so many people to join him in the armed standoff, and gave him a 22-year sentence. But when it came to the elderly Clark brothers, on whose ranch the standoff had occurred, he recognized that, even though they had broken the law, they too were largely duped. Moreover, both men were in failing health. After both were convicted, he gave them light sentences that mostly let them return home in short order.

A lot of critics of the courts are people who mistakenly believe they can delve the real issues involved in rulings by examining news accounts. The reality is that most such rulings hinge on extended histories and backgrounds that don't make most news stories, which by their nature provide only snapshots of the proceedings anyway.

Second-guessing Coughenour's ruling based on what little they actually know about the Ressam case is grotesque enough. But accusing him of being soft on terrorists and actually inviting terrorist attacks is outrageous, not to mention utterly at odds with reality.

It's also well worth noting that, even though many of Coughenour's critics have brought up his rulings in the Freemen and Washington State Militia cases, not one of them has recognized that these cases involved acts of domestic terrorism. Could it be they have a blind spot when it comes to defining just who is a terrorist?

Moreover, as Auguste at MalkinWatch points out, the real thrust of Coughenour's message was clear and direct: We do not need to suspend the Constitution to win the war against terrorists; our long-established institutions of justice, created by the Constitution, are more than effective.

The only thing that should embarrass conservatives about that statement is the realization that their ranks are being led by people (such as Hugh Hewitt and Michelle Malkin) who think it's wrong.

Contra Hewitt's characterization, Coughenour's message to Islamist terrorists was quite clear: You will not destroy us by destroying our adherence to Constitutional principles.

But of course, Coughenour's message was also directed at this administration and its horde of hack apologists: You will not win the war on terror by destroying the very institutions and principles that the terrorists seek to destroy as well.

Obviously, that's not a message they want to hear.

UPDATE: Leah at Corrente has a lot more, including an examination of the factors in Ressam's case that go unmentioned by the right-wing attack dogs.

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