Wax successfully defended six detainees at Guantanamo Bay. His latest project is the defense of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old Somali-American charged with attempting to bomb Pioneer Courthouse Square in November.
We sat down with Wax recently to reflect on the nation's course since 9/11. He was outspoken about the erosion of civil liberties thanks to legislation like the Patriot Act, although he made it clear that President Obama's Justice Department has been more intelligent in its approach to terrorism than the government under George W. Bush.
Wax was at his most provocative when we asked him, "If you were in charge of the war on terror, what would you do?" Here is his response.
Steven Wax: I think that one of the things that I would do, and I believe the Obama administration attempted to do it, would be to stop using the phrase "war on terror."
I think that we need to have more confidence in our justice system than some of the people in the Bush administration did, and than some of the people in the Obama administration do, or perhaps some of the people in Congress do. In that regard, I would be more critical of people in Congress than of some of the people in the Bush administration.
When [Attorney General] Eric Holder said, "Let's bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to this country and let's have [civilian] trials" [a decision that the Obama administration ultimately backed down from], he recognized that we are perfectly capable, within our system of laws, of rooting out people who are conspiring to commit terrorist acts or have committed terrorist acts and prosecuting them.
It's disturbing to me that some of the most strident voices against the use of our justice system are the people who are supposed to be, because they call themselves conservatives, the strongest supporters of our system. I also believe we would be better served in terms of generating information from some of the places in the world and some of the populations in this country…if we treated people with more respect....
It will be very interesting to see what happens in the Middle Eastern countries, with the Arab Spring. Who are we going to side with? And what will that say to the people in those countries? It's utterly fascinating that up until now, the fundamentalists throughout the Middle East do not seem to have played a big role in these revolutions, and do not seem to be ascendant. Are we going to support the new strongmen? Or are we going to support the people looking for economic betterment?
If I were fighting the war on terror, I would be less inclined to support some of the strongmen where some of the unrest is bred.
The exceedingly difficult question is Saudi Arabia. Perhaps one of the most fundamentalist of the Arab countries, the country that gave us 15 of the 19 9/11 terrorists, the country that gave us bin Laden, the country whose petrodollars are being used to fund terrorism.
We need to confront the exceedingly difficult reality that exists in Saudi Arabia through the Saudi government in its repression of the Saudi people, its use of petrodollars to feather the nests of a feudal system and support terrorism elsewhere.
How do we do that when we need the Saudi oil? Part of addressing terrorism goes back to the opportunity the Bush administration missed in the fall of 2001—get over our dependence on oil. You want to eliminate the importance of the Middle East? Eliminate the importance of oil.
And it seems to me that that is part of the war on terror. It is part of fighting and addressing terrorism. Redistribute some of the wealth, work with those people in some of those countries on the redistribution of that wealth, and make the Saudis less relevant to us.
There has been use of airplanes as weapons of terror, and airplanes can be highly destructive. Well, trains can be highly destructive, chemical plants can be highly destructive, trucks can be highly destructive. It seems to me that the emphasis on the searches at airports is a waste of time and money, and conveys a false sense of security, and is a symbol. It started as a legitimate reaction to a problem, but now it is a symbol. What are we supposed to do with a sign in front of the Portland airport that says, "Today, the terror alert is orange" except feel afraid? What are we supposed to do when we are confronted with X-ray machines at the airport—how intrusive is it, and what does it show?
What are we doing to ourselves as a society if we continue to shake down and spread-eagle 4-year-olds and 80-year-olds? It continues to generate fear that continues to cause people to be far more willing than we should be to give up our freedoms, to cede responsibility to our government in a way we should not be doing.
How would I deal with the war on terror? I would redistribute some of the efforts and security away from the first genuine national police force that the conservatives railed against and fought against for decades, that we now have in the TSA. I'd redistribute that money into some more genuine efforts at security elsewhere.