Someday, but apparently not a day that will come before November’s election, we might at last have a sober public discussion about terrorism, the attacks of 9/11 and the so-called war on terrorism that has been waged since 2001.

You can tell that the day has not yet arrived when the terrorism story of the day is about an inappropriate — though quite possibly politically accurate — assertion by an adviser to John McCain that another attack on American soil would benefit the Republican in the upcoming presidential election. Both McCain and his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, have renounced this wag of tongue.

If we were not quite so taken with this exchange of hot air we would, perhaps, have noticed that another federal court decision has gone against the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism detention policies, this time with a ruling in favor of a Chinese Muslim detainee. It is the second rebuke this month, the first having come from the Supreme Court — which found that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have a right to contest the reasons for their incarceration in federal court. And we might have taken note, as well, of a study by the Seton Hall University law school that calls into question the Pentagon’s claims about whether any significant danger is posed by the release of prisoners from the camp at Guantanamo.

A team of professors and law school students, examining public records put forth by the Pentagon, concludes that claims about detainees who have “returned to the fight” — and so again pose a danger to Americans — amount to an “urban legend.” This is surely of significance, since Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — opposing the idea that the prisoners should have a day in court — claimed in his dissent that the ruling would “almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.” He cited as evidence reports that “at least 30” released prisoners have “returned to the battlefield.”

Seton Hall examined this proclamation and found it to be at best overblown and at worst yet another instance of apocalyptic rhetoric that outstrips reality. The team examined what could charitably be called the Pentagon’s evolving accounts of these recidivists and confirmed a dozen. Even that includes three Russians who, after their repatriations, were involved in acts of violence in Russia, and not on a battlefield anywhere near Americans.

The Pentagon currently provides names and specific accounts of violence abroad involving 13 former Guantanamo detainees — a list that roughly corresponds to the group Seton Hall identified. Nonetheless, military officials say about two dozen more are “suspected” of involvement in “terrorist activities.” None are accused of having killed Americans.

Does it matter if a dozen — or two dozen — terrorists are at large? Yes. But context also matters: More than 500 detainees have been released from Guantanamo, an encampment former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once remarked was necessary so that the United States could incarcerate indefinitely the “worst of the worst.” By the military’s own account, less than 3 percent of those who’ve been released are positively identified as having engaged in violence again.

It is quite possible that an impartial judge viewing evidence against some of these detainees might well have seen fit to demand that charges be brought against them. As it is now, detainees are released through diplomatic negotiations, sometimes after a home country has brought pressure to bear on the Bush administration — and sometimes when the administration pressures a country to take prisoners the U.S. no longer wants to hold.

Is there a difference between a judge weighing evidence and deciding whether to release a suspect, and a diplomat weighing pressure from an ally whose angry constituents are demanding that a leader bring his countrymen home? You bet. One is governed by the law, the other by political expediency.

In the almost seven years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we have made little effort to rigorously and dispassionately examine the global terrorism threat. Indeed, the report of the 9/11 Commission — now four years old — is the closest we’ve ever come to assembling facts, rather than merely repeating political claims that so often turn out to be fantasy.

Republicans would do well to stop conjuring up dangers where none exist. But Democrats must drop their reflexive response that any mention of terrorism amounts to playing the “fear card.” The threat is real. So is the fear. What are these candidates going to do about it?

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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