04/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Progressives Should Slam Conservatives with Zazi Case

This is cross-posted to

Najibullah Zazi plead guilty yesterday in what should be a major coup for the administration. Right now, they're not exploiting it for all it's worth.

First, some background: Zazi traveled from Colorado to New York with explosives in his car and the intention to detonate them in the New York subway, potentially killing hundreds of innocent Americans. The NYT is reporting that Zazi copped to it after DOJ pressured him into cooperation out of fear that the inquiry might widen to include other members of his family. As a part of the deal, prospectors believe he'll prove a valuable source of information about his contacts in Pakistan, where he met with al Qaeda and learned to make the devices.

Though Zazi's plea has been sealed by the judge, he has admitted to conspiracies to use weapons of mass destruction, to commit murder in a foreign country, and to provide material support for a terrorist organization. In exchange, he'll reportedly be sentenced to a life term in a June 25th hearing. Leaving Zazi to anonymously rot in jail is a win-win for the USA in the worldwide PR battle with al Qaeda, too. Sentencing him to die denies terrorists the sickening prospect of using Zazi as a "martyr" in recruiting and financing propaganda. This is worth remembering when KSM's sentencing comes around.

The case demonstrates that the intelligence community can partner with law enforcement agencies to provide swift, effective justice to those who would harm us. The American security apparatus "connected the dots" to prevent a major terrorist attack. What's more, it shows that the Obama administration is committed to defeating terrorism and can apply the civilian justice system as part of that effort.

The bottom line is that this is an absolutely huge win for a sound, progressive worldview on national security. The good news is that Attorney General Eric Holder is out making the case. The bad news is that he's making the case in the wrong way. Here's a telling statement on the usefulness of the civilian court system from his press conference:

To take this tool [civilian courts] out of our hands, to denigrate this tool flies in the face of facts and is more about politics than it is about facts.

It's a perfectly sound and correct argument. It's also one that most Americans ignore.

It would be much more effective to frame the national security argument in terms of emotion, not wonkery. Americans want to hear that their country is strong, that we're beating terrorism, and that we're on the offensive in that fight. Using civilian courts shouldn't be referred to as a "tool"; rather, the entire case should be framed as a "strong victory over those who are dedicated to killing us."

Conservatives don't care about facts. They fight these ideological battles on emotional grounds, and for decades their arguments have resonated more with Americans than progressive ones. I would rather have the AG preempting conservative attacks using the Zazi case by projecting an image of staunch, fist-pounding resolve to defend the country, not wonkishly responding to conservatives' false assertions that civilian courts are weak.

Think I'm wrong? Look no farther than this WaPo/ABC poll that shows the only category that conservatives are "winning" on national security right now is the civilian courts vs. military courts argument, despite the civilian courts' effectiveness in the Reid, Moussaoui, and, now, Zazi cases. Why? My hunch is that the emotional idea behind a military court simply projects a better image of strength, irrespective of the justice it may deliver.

Now is the time to go on the offensive. Progressives should use this very tangible example of progressive strength and smarts on national security and show that conservative approaches continue to be reckless. Or we could continue fighting this battle on conservatives' terms and keep wasting our breath.

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