It’s been my experience that, generally speaking, the truer the criticism of a public official, the more defensive the public official becomes when the criticism is raised.
It’s a natural human reaction. When someone or something threatens to pierce the protective shield we’ve built around ourselves, we go into defense mode. It’s just more noticeable in public officials because of the spotlight they’re under. Famous cases include Richard Nixon ("People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.") and Bill Clinton ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman …").
I thought of such things this morning when I read what President Barack Obama said in defense of the decision to try professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian rather than military court. Here’s part of what The Associated Press reported:
The president, in a series of TV interviews during his trip to Asia, said those offended by the legal rights accorded Mohammed by virtue of his facing a civilian trial rather than a military tribunal won’t find it “offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.”
I’m a little nervous about the degree of defensiveness with which the president appears to be reacting. As I said above, my instincts as a reporter tell me that when criticism causes a public official to overreact, it’s probably because the criticism cuts closer to the truth than the public official wants to admit.
Is the president nervous that the trial won’t go well? I don’t know that. What I do know is that I expect a little more restraint from my president. As the nation’s top elected official and a lawyer, he should know better than to publicly predict the outcome of any trial, let alone predict that a trial will end with the death penalty. Doing so doesn’t exactly support the point that I presume he’s attempting to make by trying Mohammed in civilian court — the point that in America, unlike in much of the Muslim world, we have a fair and impartial justice system. I don’t have any sympathy for Mohammed, but when the president declares him a dead man walking before he even goes to trial, it doesn’t exactly uphold the values that we claim our justice system stands for.