Dreaming Of Anna. And Jose.

(AP Photo/Brett Coomer-File)
Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
I am dreaming. And in my dream all the poor soulswho were covering the Anna Nicole Smith body-disposition hearing instead had been told by their far-sighted and enlightened bosses to travel a tiny way further south along Interstate 95 to cover instead the competency hearing for Jose Padilla, the alleged terror conspirator. In my dream, the millions of people who wasted their lives this week following the saga of the former stripper were instead transfixed by the in-court drama unfolding in Miami, where government agents were finally being forced to disclose some of the ways in which they treat terror suspects—even U.S. citizens.

In my dream, all the cable television channels showed continuous updates of the proceedings in Miami and those proceedings, despite being in federal court, were televised to the world. Instead of the jackass of a judge presiding over the Smith hearing in state court in Broward County, millions of people instead followed the decorous proceedings inside the austere courtroom of U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, who has bravely refused to be intimidated by the Justice Department into steamrolling Padilla into a conviction. Instead of our legal system earning scorn it earned respect; instead of it being turned into a circus, it turned itself into a cathedral of fairness and justice.

I dream on. Instead of ersatz analysts spending their precious minutes of air-time speculating about who gave which drugs and when to Smith, or which of the half-dozen potential fathers is the true father of her poor, doomed baby girl, I see thoughtful legal scholars debating the merits of the government's tactics and strategies toward detainees. I see and hear earnest lawyers informing the public, or reminding it, about Padilla's initial status as an "enemy combatant" and the White House's sudden reversal of that status when it became clear that the Supreme Court would side with Padilla. I even see a discussion about the import of this week's big federal appeals court ruling that endorsed the insipid Military Commissions Act of 2006—another blow to individual rights.

Instead of eerie glam shots of Smith and her boobs, or ghoulish semi-pornographic videos of her upon the television screen, I see dramatic video of the terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay and I hear serious discussions about the fantastic new documentary just released by Rory Kennedy entitled "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib." I hear both supporters and critics of the government's legal war on terror have the forum and the opportunity to express their views about some of the most important issues since September 11, 2001.

I wake up. The dream is over. Five and half years after the Twin Towers fell we are right back to where we started when it comes to our twisted national obsessions. No, it has gotten even worse. In the summer of 2001, we were transfixed with the saga of Chandra Levy at the expense of the looming threat of Al Qaeda. Say what you will about that tawdry story but at least it involved a murder investigation and a politician. What does the Smith story offer except sex and drugs? Absolutely nothing. By comparison, the Levy story looks in retrospect like Watergate.

We could have spent this week informing ourselves of the ways in which our Constitution is being molded to fit the war on terror. We could have turned our wandering eyes to the interaction between our government and the individuals it has chosen to make examples of. Instead, we informed ourselves of the various relationships of a sleazy woman and her sleazy friends and family thanks to an inept judge and a gaggle of odious attorneys. In so doing, we have learned nothing worth knowing. And that makes us fools.