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Where law reigns, terror withers

In the US, a court ruling in favor of Ali al-Marri bolsters both the rule of law and national security.

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Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that the indefinite detention of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a legal resident alien living in Peoria, Ill., threatened to "undermine all of the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution." Mr. Marri, who has never borne arms against the United States, has been held without charge as an "enemy combatant" for more than four years. Those critics who have condemned the court's ruling as jeopardizing national security misunderstand the nature of terrorism.

Under ordinary circumstances, terrorism holds no appeal to the overwhelming majority of any society. People are not by nature extremists. In fact, with rare exceptions, people are indifferent to the angry ranting of a fanatic.

The reason is simple: The terrorist's view of the world is not widely shared. The wrongs that cut him to the quick do not offend his compatriots or stir them to action. His political ends are dismissed as illegitimate, his violent means assailed as crimes. Instead of being welcomed as a hero, he is vilified. The fate of many a violent extremist is to die in prison, disillusioned and alone, the world as unconcerned with his cause as it had ever been.

But occasionally, fortune smiles on the extremist, granting him the credibility he craves. Ironically, the extremist rarely has anything to do with this change. Instead, it happens when the society he attacks pursues policies that vindicate his venom. To his satisfaction, reality comes to resemble what he has long decried. His vision begins to acquire substance where once it was fantasy. Those around him – long unmoved by his platform – awaken to see the world as he has described it. Gradually, the lifeblood of any state – its moral legitimacy – ebbs from the society to the terrorist, whose message no longer seems so extreme.

So it has become with the war on terror. Noble declarations of American rhetoric can't conceal reality on the ground: seemingly endless detentions of innocent prisoners; "enhanced interrogation techniques" that many believe to be torture; black sites where prisoners "disappear"; renditions to countries that practice what the US cannot.

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