04/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ali al-Marri and the Entropy of the War on Terror

Entropy, I was taught in high school chemistry, is one of the several laws ruling the universe. Disorder increases, and energy dissipates; certainty disappears under the inevitable pressure of time. And so it is in the United States' "war on terror."

Moral clarity after the 9/11 attacks gave way to self-reflection and criticism. Almost eight years after the attacks, Bush's Crusade is defined primarily through a set of ambiguous terrorism trials, such as that of Ali al-Marri. Reasonable public judgment of US counterterrorism policies is impossible in the face of this ambiguity, and Bush's global war on terror (or GWOT) has become merely another partisan battle ground, mirroring underlying ideological differences. It did not have to be this way, however, and public uncertainty does not necessarily undermine the continued need to combat terrorism.

Al-Marri was arrested in 2001; the US declared him an enemy combatant and placed him in military custody, most of which took place in a Navy brig in South Carolina. He was charged last month with conspiracy and material support to terrorism. Friends and family, however, describe al-Marri as a good husband and neighbor, not a terrorist. Like most such cases since 9/11, it is impossible to determine which side is correct, due to the secrecy surrounding the government's evidence and past terrorism cases of dubious validity.

In the absence of clear information, partisan divides are revealed. Bush's critics will argue that al-Marri is innocent, another victim of the questionable legal policies of Bush's GWOT. Bush supporters, in contrast -- who believe civil liberties must be sacrificed to keep the US safe from terrorism -- will point to the need to maintain vigilance due to the continued terrorist threat. Neither view can be substantiated and any opinions advanced will reflect only one's initial attitude towards the Bush Administration.

This citizen, though, is not ready to form an opinion. I am not one to refrain from expressing opinions, and pride myself on my contrarianism. This, however, is the reason for my indecision. While I opposed the Bush Administration's policies, I believe that AQ represents a threat to the United States, and agreed with some of Bush's counterterrorism policies. Yet I am also a progressive and pragmatist. I do not believe we must sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of security; I also believe that Bush's less-than-legal efforts were counterproductive in the struggle against terrorism. Lacking more information on al-Marri's guilt/innocence, my ideological divisions cancel each other out, and I am left -- to be honest -- confused.

This is the problem. One of the benefits of democracy is the open debate on the government's actions, this "marketplace of ideas" theoretically producing the best-possible outcome. The restrictive environment in which the Bush Administration operated -- when they bothered to inform the public of their actions -- undermined this "marketplace," making it impossible for the American public to have an informed debate. The result is the wild swings in opinion we have seen since 9/11. Initially, the public was incredibly supportive of the Administration, to the point that questioning Bush's policies was derided as cowardice. By 2006, though, we had tired of the GWOT and the 2008 Presidential elections were basically a referendum on the Bush Administration. The outcome of this referendum was positive, but it raises the possibility of continued emotional shifts that could undermine President Obama's agenda and return the United States to GOP rule.

Meanwhile, AQ is reconstituting along the Afghan-Pakistan border -- with a continued desire to attack America -- and our military and civilian agencies are working diligently to protect us from this threat. The public's fickle moods may not only harm Obama, they could also preclude the formation of an effective US counterterrorism policy. We -- the public and the Administration -- owe it to the men and women serving us to ensure we understand and support the policies behind their service. It is too late to determine the truth about the al-Marri case, but we have the chance to avoid future such dilemmas under Obama.

This in part involves public attentiveness to international and domestic issues, but it also involves the Administration ensuring they provide the information needed to judge their policies, short of divulging classified information. Obama has taken admirable steps in this regard, but as the al-Marri trial proceeds and the Administration formulates its policies on public access to terrorism-related information, he will hopefully move to overcome the entropy surrounding US national security with a healthy dose of informed public debate.