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Don’t Invade Portugal

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We can only hope that President Obama doesn’t order a military invasion of Portugal for refusing an extradition request by the U.S. government to extradite a convicted murderer to the United States.

The case involves 68-year-old George Wright, who was convicted by a New Jersey court for a 1962 killing of a gas station attendant during a robbery. Wright had served only part of his 15-30 year prison sentence when he broke out of a jail and went on the lam. U.S. officials claim that Wright escaped the country by helping to hijack a plane but he was never convicted of that crime.

By comparing fingerprint records in Portugal, where all citizens are required to be fingerprinted, with Wright’s fingerprints, U.S. officials were able to confirm that Wright, who had assumed a new name, was the man they were looking for.

The Portuguese courts, however, recently denied the extradition request based on the notion that the statute of limitations had expired under Portuguese law. The U.S. government has apparently accepted the ruling and is conceding that the case is now closed.

Doesn’t that mean that a convicted murderer goes free? Yes, it does. Doesn’t it mean that he could commit more murders, including by returning to the United States and committing them? Yes again.

But the law is the law. And under the law, people who wrongfully kill others often go free for what some would call legal technicalities.

Could the U.S. government take another approach? Sure. It could do what it did with Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. It could order a military invasion of Portugal, with the intent of capturing or killing Wright. Or it could fire a drone missile at Wright’s home or drop a bomb on it. None of that would be legal but there is little that Portugal could do about it if the United States pursued that route.

Of course, that’s the route that the U.S. government chose to pursue after the Afghan government refused President Bush’s extradition demand for Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.

Bush’s extradition demand is of critical importance because it reveals why he decided to order an invasion of Afghanistan. After all, many in the mainstream media and many interventionists continue to claim that the reason Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan was because Afghan officials had participated in the 9/11 attacks by knowingly “harboring” bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Bush’s extradition demand demonstrated that that simply wasn’t the case. If U.S. officials had evidence indicating that the Taliban had knowingly participated in the 9/11 attacks, Bush would never have bothered with seeking bin Laden’s extradition. He would instead have simply ordered an attack on Afghanistan on the principle of self-defense.

In principle, there is no difference between the Wright murder case and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sure, there were many more people killed on 9/11, but the number of people murdered does not affect the underlying principles of the two cases. If Wright had murdered 100 people as part of his robbery attempt, it would have been the same as murdering one. If the 9/11 attack had killed 10 people, the legal principles would have been the same as killing hundreds.

The fact is that the 9/11 attacks, like Wright’s killing of that gas-station attendant, constituted criminal offenses. Whether the 9/11 attacks are considered murder or terrorism, the fact remains: we’re still dealing with criminal offenses, not acts of war. That principle was manifested by the fact that Zacharias Moussaoui, one of the 9/11 co-conspirators, was convicted of the crime in federal district court.

One problem that Bush had was that unlike the case with Portugal, there was no extradition treaty between Afghanistan and the United States. That meant that legally the Afghan government was under no obligation to honor or even consider Bush’s extradition demand.

Nonetheless, the Afghan government did consider Bush’s request. It responded that it would consider delivering bin Laden to an independent tribunal upon receipt of evidence showing that bin Laden had orchestrated the attack, evidence that would have been required in an official extradition proceeding.

Bush refused to deliver such evidence and made it clear to the Afghan government that his extradition demand for bin Laden was unconditional. When the Afghan government refused to comply with Bush’s demand, Bush ordered his invasion.

What Bush was doing was employing the military to enforce criminal laws — and illegally at that, given that Afghanistan was under no legal requirement to agree to Bush’s extradition demand. Bush’s use of the military in this instance was no different in principle from the use of the military to enforce drug laws in Latin American countries. In such cases, the matter remains a criminal-justice problem even though it’s the military, rather than the police, that is being used to address the problem.

Countless innocent people have been killed and maimed in Afghanistan in the process of trying to kill or capture bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members. The U.S. military has now been occupying Afghanistan for some ten years, with no end of violence in sight. Thanks to the U.S. invasion and occupation, Afghanistan has also been converted into the biggest terrorist-producing machine in history.

Compare that to how the U.S. government addressed the 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center. The government addressed that bombing in much the same way it addressed the Wright case. One of the WTC co-conspirators, Ramzi Yousef, escaped to Pakistan. Rather than bomb or invade Pakistan in an attempt to arrest Yousef, U.S. officials chose to simply wait him out, figuring that he might pop up somewhere down the line.

Sure enough, after a couple of years or so, Yousef popped up in Pakistan. The police, acing in concert with U.S. officials, surrounded him, took him into custody, and remanded him to the United States for trial. He was prosecuted in federal district court and convicted, and is now serving time in a federal penitentiary. Pakistan was never bombed or invaded in the process of getting Yousef.

Invading Afghanistan to get bin Laden was the very worst thing the U.S. government could ever have done, just as invading Portugal to get George Wright would be. The best approach on matters relating to criminal justice is to leave the military out of them.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.