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Harris Sherline: Should We Declare War on Terrorism?

Our nation's continued indecision only empowers our enemies

The latest question being debated in the media is, “Can we kill an American who is working for al-Qaeda overseas?” It may be rhetorical, but it clearly demonstrates the confusion in America today about our status — that is, whether we are at war.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

The nation is divided over the issue. If we are at war, why aren’t we trying war criminals in military tribunals as opposed to giving them the same rights that our citizens enjoy in civilian courts?

The Bush administration seemed to be clear that we are at war, and that enemy combatants should be tried in military courts. Although Guantanamo Bay was established as the place to hold people who were picked up on the battlefield or otherwise captured and known to be terrorists, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, in the eight years after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the government never completed the job of updating our laws to deal with such prisoners.

Most of the public seems to believe we are at war and that it is a war on terrorism, but the Obama administration apparently doesn’t agree.

This leads to confusion and weakens our nation’s defenses. President Barack Obama’s position that the word “terrorism” is not to be used by his administration and being unwilling to acknowledge that we are at war is directly at odds with his authorization to send an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan and his approval of attacks by military drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The confusion is further exemplified by the administration’s handling of incidents such as the Fort Hood shootings, promising to close Gitmo without thoroughly considering the consequences, and moving the trials of Mohammad and the Christmas Day bomber to civilian courts. For the most part, the reasoning behind these decisions is not clear, and the public appears to strongly object to them.

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall have power to … declare war,” so perhaps the question should be: Why not declare war on al-Qaeda and any other group that attacks us?

We seem to be overlooking the fact that Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in August 1996. His declaration was published in a London-based Arabic language newspaper and followed a long list of attacks on U.S. properties and personnel overseas dating back to 1979, when Iran took U.S. embassy employees hostage. It continued from there with the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and a succession of other attacks thereafter — the most notable of which were the 9/11 attacks and the attempt to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight from Copenhagen to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

So, what’s the problem? Are we at war or not? If we are, why don’t we formally declare war and move on from there? The obvious question is: Against whom? There is no easy answer, but how about starting with al-Qaeda and any nation or group that gives them support or allows them to use its territory for training and staging attacks on other nations?

As for declaring war, that’s the province of Congress — not the president — so why not move the process directly to the legislature where the issue can be openly debated, regardless of what the president may want? Ultimately, the decision is up to them.

My guess is that the American people would strongly favor debating and settling this issue once and for all. We should eliminate any confusion about holding enemy combatants until the war ends and trying them in military tribunals or civilian courts, or killing an American who is openly waging war against his or her own country.

I know it’s a complicated and confusing issue, but no more than many others that are taken up by Congress. Let them get everything out on the table for all to see and discuss, then decide. That way we can go forward with a clear understanding of the alternatives — good and bad, which hopefully would unify the nation behind a single, clear-cut policy.

The problem with the current situation is that it allows our enemies — al-Qaeda, Muslim fundamentalists and others, such as Iran — to capitalize on our confusion and adapt their strategy accordingly, while we can’t seem to agree on how to respond.

As long as we continue to allow our enemies to exploit our vacillation and indecision, there are sure to be more attempts to attack our homeland, some of which are bound to succeed. To succeed, they only have to be right once, while to prevent them we must be right 100 percent of the time.

We should push Congress to debate the issue and vote up or down for an open declaration of war on our enemies.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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