Pre-Crime and Punishment

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<b>Whatever Hollywood does, Washington can do better. After all, they get to play with real-life people. It's showtime </b>

Those struggling to work out the philosophy behind the Bush administration’s new National Security Policy might need to pay a visit to their local multiplex cinema.

The administration’s policy, presented to Congress last Friday, appears to have been crafted by the screenwriters of Stephen Spielberg’s summer blockbuster, Minority Report.

In the hit film, a Washington D.C.-based police unit, headed by Tom Cruise, specializes in thwarting crimes before they take place.

In the administration’s latest policy document, the United States takes the lead, using pre-emptive attacks to foil terrorism.

And when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld describes a possible American attack on Iraq as an act of “self-defense,” he’s taking his cue straight from Hollywood.

“The United States’ task is to see that we don’t allow an event to happen that then one has to punish someone for,” Rumsfeld has helpfully explained.

Thus, Saddam Hussein would appear to be in the government’s crosshairs not so much for what he has done but for what he might do: his “pre-crimes,” in the parlance of the film.

While Saddam boasts an undeniably appalling record, the case for transferring him into the terrorist camp remains tenuous. There is no known evidence linking his regime to terrorist networks like Al Qaeda, nothing that shows he is plotting attacks upon theUnited States.

Who needs evidence, when your foresight is 20/20?

However, listening to Vice-President Dick Cheney’s dogged attempts to burnish Saddam’s terrorist credentials, I found myself worrying: What if lifeimitates art, and the authorities actually lack perfect foresight? What if, as we learn from the film, pre-crime prevention is not all it’s cracked up to be?

In fact, you wouldn’t need to look far to find a “terrorist” who didn’t quite turn out the way that Bush administration officials predicted. You could start with former South African president and 1994 Nobel Peace laureate Nelson Mandela.

In the mid-1980s, while Mandela languished in a South African prison, the U.S. Congress was voting on a resolution calling for his release and for American recognition of the African National Congress.

While a majority in Congress voted for this resolution, Congressman Dick Cheney (R - Wyoming) voted against it.

When this disgraceful voting record was dredged up during the 2000 U.S. election campaign, the vice-presidential candidate testily defended it on the grounds that Mandela’s A.N.C. was “then viewed as a terrorist organization.”

This might have come as news to 245 of Mr. Cheney’s Congressional colleagues who voted for Mr. Mandela’s liberation with a clear conscience. In any event — and despite Cheney’s lack of patronage — Mr. Mandela would go on to lead his people to freedom and become one of the world’s most revered statesman.

Such credentials don’t much impress the Bush White House. In recent weeks, Mandela has tried unsuccessfully to speak with the U.S. president by telephone to express concern about a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq.

The White House appears to be screening its calls — the Cowboy-in-Chief and his loyal deputies having more use for lariats than laureates these days, as they rustle up a posse to go after troublemakers. (Mr. Mandela should thank his stars that the BushGang did not rule the range in the 1980s.)

The Bush administration makes clear in its new National Security Policy that it is engaged in a war of ideas; pursuing the doctrine that “all acts of terrorism are illegitimate, so that terrorism will be viewed in the same light as slavery, piracy orgenocide.”

Which presents a problem.

Nelson Mandela is as far removed from Saddam Hussein as one can get without breaching the species barrier. Yet, if men like the U.S. vice-president and hisadministration’s one-size-fits-all definition of terrorism are incapable of distinguishing between the two, then perhaps they should concede that there is a difference between showing you have balls and forecasting with crystal ones.

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