No, this isn’t about marathons or Ironman triathlons…it’s about extremism-fueled-terrorism and the long slow road to ideas defeating ideology. A long time ago in a previous life, I spent time debating with smart (and potentially powerful) people the scourge of nasty, vile, hateful people inciting nasty, vile, hateful acts and how we could draw the line between saying and doing. While we absolutely hated the radical idiots preaching “Death to America,” we never found a perfect tool to counter them.
And this week, the UK released on bail a radical idiot with reportedly direct ties to terrorist acts. If there was a poster child for going over the line from preaching to tangible supporting, Abu Qatada was that child. British authorities have restricted his movements and are undoubtedly collecting intel on him even in his relative “freedom.” And he is only free because if he were deported to Jordan, he would undoubtedly be put to death (after a trial, of course).
In the short run, Abu Qatada gets some press and will probably resume preaching, likely with a smaller global megaphone and restricted reach. But he is free because he is in the UK, where rule of law applies to everyone, even idiotic, terrorist-supporting ideologues.
In the long, long run, that reality — rule of law applies to everyone — does more to undermine radical, stupid, ideological, hateful extremism than anything else. More so than drone strikes and blocking funds and setting-up-and-taking-down would-be terrorists, consistently and relentlessly applying the rule of law to everyone builds generational resistance to radical extremism. Yes, it sucks to see Abu Qatada “play” the system to his own advantage and get out on bail, but the underlying message to would-be followers, whether they explicitly understand it or not, is that the West follows rule of law for everyone, that the individual is guaranteed a certain minimal level of respect and rights. The two challenges for the UK and US, of course, are applying rule of law even in the face of abhorrent terrorist attacks and continuing to apply the rule of law over the long run.
This all requires patience over politics and confidence — confidence that the legal and political system are strong enough to allow radical idiots their day in court, unfettered and unmuzzled like any other defendant. Set Abu Qatada “free” on bail? Sure. Try al Qaeda operatives in.a New York City courtroom? Sure. In the long run, respect for individual rights and the rule of law is stronger than “Death to America”