US RIGHT TO RESIST TRIBUNALS-BUT USE THEM ANYWAY

This week's surge in the dispute over military tribunals reflects American strength.

US President George W. Bush has announced that he will use tribunals to deal with suspected terrorists. The plan provoked expressions of concern about a compromise of civil liberties. Opposition mounts.

Americans, whichever side they believe is right, should welcome the conflict. It is how truth evolves in democracies.

The US has the world's best system of jurisprudence. It's not perfect. It sometimes acquits people who have committed crimes and sometimes penalizes people who have not.

At all times, however, it protects the rights of the accused, beginning with a presumption of innocence.

To anyone properly appreciative of that presumption's role in American liberty, the use of military tribunals is revolting. Opposition to Bush's move has solid grounding.

Yet the move is proper, however regrettable.

The US is at war. Worse, the war began inside US borders. Worse yet, the threat looms that the terrorist enemy will strike again-inside US borders.

The government duty-bound to protect American freedom also is duty-bound to protect Americans against physical threat. Something must give way. The conflict is not physical defense vs. the American jurisprudence. It is physical defense vs. righteous American judicial sensitivity.

In war, when lives are at stake, sensitivity yields.

Military tribunals, by nature, operate outside normal jurisprudence. That's dangerous ground. But for a government responsible for defense against a demonstrated threat it's also necessary.

So normal jurisprudence works normally for cases unrelated to the war on terrorism. And while the war is in progress, military tribunals work inside carefully defined boundaries in cases believed to bear on the war.

Allowing this to happen compromises fundamentals of liberty. Not allowing it to happen would compromise American security.

The challenge is to allow military tribunals to work in service to the war on terrorism and nothing more. Meeting the challenge requires vigilance by Congress and the press and judicial remedies if abuses occur.

There will be excesses all around. The tribunals will throw suspicion on people who in fact have no links to terrorism. It can only be hoped that their errors get no more grievous than that.

In Congress, political opportunism will distort vigilance. And the press will err on the facts about and meanings of events and occasionally make strategically inconvenient, even dangerous, disclosures.

But the American system will continue to work. Checks and balances will still work. There will simply be an extraordinary mechanism in place due to extraordinary circumstances. And the checks and balances will adjust accordingly.

The US is right to resist the imposition of military tribunals but even more right to accommodate it while it's necessary. And it should expel the mechanism as soon as the necessity has clearly subsided.

What it should not do is let terrorists take advantage of the system they're trying to destroy. For the US to avail itself of that system's constitutional flexibility in self-defense shows determination. For the US to temper that determination with resistance to compromise liberty shows unconquerable strength.

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