A Failure of Nerve

A Failure of Nerve

It is very dangerous to teach religion in the wrong way. In order to achieve progress, you have to teach religion in its proper form.
—Mehmet Nuri Yilmaz, head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Administration

In our opinion the people who would elect the members [of the Saudi Consultative Council] would not choose the right people. So therefore we prefer to appoint and to choose, but within certain specifications and the rules.
—Sheik Muhammad al-Jubeir, Chairman of the Saudi Consultative Council

Are we supposed to read them the Miranda rights, hire a flamboyant defense lawyer, bring them back to the United States to create a new cable network of Osama TV…provide a worldwide platform from which propaganda can be developed?
—John Ashcroft, U.S. attorney general, defending the proposed military tribunals

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said that if terrorists were brought back to the United States, “we’d have the potential for a repeat of the O. J. Simpson trial, complete with grandstanding by defense lawyers.”
New York Times account of a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, November 18, 2001


At first glance there appears to be no difference between the American, Saudi, and Turkish officials; all seem to express a lack of commitment to democratic institutions. Yilmaz worries that incorrect religious ideas may be taught; al-Jubeir doesn’t like democratic elections because the wrong people might be elected; our officials are unhappy because juries can return wrong verdicts or provide occasions for the spread of wrong ideas. The views of the Turkish and Saudi officials are hardly surprising, because one was raised in a nation where the defense of secularism has been a prime objective of regimes since early in the last century and the other was born into a society that has never known democracy. Of the American instances, though, something more must be said. The courage of people more committed to democracy than McConnell and Ashcroft seems to falter or fail altogether when confronted with some of the actual consequences of democratic institutions—commitment does not ensure against a failure of nerve. And when the political leaders of a democracy lose their nerve, its institutions may be at serious risk.

The O. J. Simpson trial, of which McConnell is so contemptuous, is an example of an American institution in practice. The prosecution of an African-American celebrity accused of murdering his white ex-wife and her boyfriend stimulated an outpouring of tabloid journalism that reveled in the spectacle of a brilliant black defense attorney who ultimately played the “race card” in dueling with a prosecution team of a white woman and a black man. Few people would want an O. J. Simpson trial to become the norm, but public trials are inherently vulnerable to becoming mere public spectacles laced with a...