Topic: Government & Politics

Rejecting the Popular Terrorist

When is an ethical decision both easy and hard? It is when the ethical choice is unambiguous and clear, but the likely consequences of making it are unpleasant. That is the situation facing the Bush Administration now regarding the disposition of Luis Posada Carriles, a 77 year old Cuban exile who sneaked back into Florida six weeks ago to seek political asylum for having worked for the CIA as a Cold War soldier in the 1960s.

Posada is a terrorist. It is undeniably true that the goal of his terrorism for 45 years has been the overthrow of Fidel Castro, but he has sought to accomplish this worthy objective by, among other acts of violence, plotting attacks on Havana tourist spots, one of which killed an Italian patron in 1997. He is generally believed to be among those who orchestrated the car bomb assassination of a former foreign minister of Chile, Orlando Letelier, along with his American aide, Ronni Moffitt, in Washington D.C., and the mid-air bombing of a Cubana Airlines flight two weeks later, which claimed the lives of 73 passengers off the coast of Barbados. Some of the terrorist acts Posada admits to, and regarding those he is unrepentant. He has denied participation in the plane bombing, but the weight of the evidence, including F.B.I. documents, says otherwise.

The Bush Administration, to its credit, has accompanied its war on terrorism with an uncompromising condemnation of those who employ terrorist tactics. By those principles, Posada should be arrested (he also entered the U.S. illegally) and extradited for trial, probably to Venezuela, where he would be tried for the Cubana air disaster.

The problem, a practical rather than an ethical problem, is that much of the Cuban population in Florida regards Posada as a hero, a “freedom fighter.” “Freedom fighter” is the label of choice for a terrorist whose cause one supports. No matter: Posada’s breed of freedom fighting is still terrorism, and though the Cuban backlash to the U.S. turning him over to the pro-Castro government in Venezuela could mean that the Sunshine State will go Blue next presidential election, there is only one right thing to do. A country can’t fight a war against terrorism while it protects terrorists, and it can’t muddy the definition of terrorism to preserve votes, either. If Posada is a terrorist, and he is, then the U.S, cannot grant him asylum. President Bush has been extremely unequivocal about how he feels about “nations that harbor terrorists.”

He’s against them. It therefore follows that he shouldn’t want to be president of one of them.

Bush Sr. already botched a similar ethical choice, when he over-ruled the Justice Department as it was prepared to deport one of Posada’s terrorist colleagues, Orlando Bosche, in 1990. At the time, an associate U.S. attorney general, Joe Whitley, called Bosche “a terrorist, unfettered by laws or human decency, threatening and inflicting violence without regard to the identity of his victims.”

“The United States cannot tolerate the inherent inhumanity of terrorism as a way of settling disputes,” Whitley said. “Appeasement of those who would use force will only breed more terrorists. We must look on terrorism as a universal evil, even if it is directed toward those with whom we have no political sympathy.” He was right, but this was before 9/11/01, when the threat of terrorism seemed not so immediate to citizens of the U.S. Today, Bosche is a key figure in the violent anti-Castro wing in Florida, and one of the individuals proclaiming Posada as a hero who must be protected.

It looks as if the war on terror has already cost the U.S. a core value in the government’s and the public’s seeming acceptance of torture “when the ends justify it.” If we end up embracing the evil of terrorism as well, this could turn into the most costly war in U.S. history. A democracy can lose resources, soldiers, battles, territory, and respect yet still survive. When it loses its ethical bearings, however, it is doomed.

Holding on to the nation’s principles is well worth losing an election. All that the Bush Administration requires is sufficient quantities of the activating character trait that is often essential to ethical decision-making: courage.

Courage is the answer when easy ethical choices get hard.


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