Terror on Trial: Heart vs. Mind

November 22, 2009

There has been a lot of talk lately about the decision by Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, among other crimes.

The decision to try Mohammed in a civilian court instead of having him face a military tribunal has been greeted by a lot of outrage and hand-wringing. It’s dangerous, some say. It’s what the terrorists want say others, so we shouldn’t give it to them, say others. It could give the terrorists reason to attack New York again, and threaten the court, the jurors, prosecutors, etc…

My friend Bob wrote to me the other day. “I think it is absolutely insane,” he said. “If these terrorists will be tried under the U.S. criminal justice system, AND it’s been admitted they did not receive their Miranda Rights, AND both the President of the United States and the U.S. Attorney General have admitted they were “tortured,” wouldn’t any competent judge would have to immediately dismiss the case?”

I am certainly no attorney, but I’ve covered my share of court battles. I have some thoughts.

For one thing, yes, a civilian trial will be full of pitfalls. And that’s OUR fault.

The previous administration’s tendency to use the Constitution only as a list of suggestion left us with quite a dilemma.

For one thing, as to the site of the trial, legally, i.e., constitutionally, it only makes sense.

The attacks of that day, for all their scope and horror, were criminal acts, carried out by a criminal organization. Thus, our laws demand that a trial be held in the jurisdiction in which the crime took place, with a chance for Mohammed to face his accusers and have his say.

Of course, there is the worry that Al Qaeda or some other band of holy murderers will seek to avenge the people involved in the trial, or the residents of New York City.

So, we’re supposed to break our own laws because we’re afraid of the terrorists?

The whole reason they are called terrorists is that they want us to be afraid, to abandon what we stand for and do things out of fear and anger, not out of reason and law. The last thing they would want is to be treated fairly under a set of secular laws, removed from the passions of our righteous anger and their feudal, wild-eyed fundamentalism

Yes, another attack could happen. But it’s not as though any of these thugs need a new reason.

It is also not as though we have not been through all this before.

A number of terror suspects have been put on trial in the U.S., convicted and imprisoned and the world did not come to a screeching halt. With a little time on a search engine, I found seven right off the bat.

•    First, let us not forget Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, whose truck bomb destroyed a federal building in April, 1995, killing 168 people, 19 of them children. He was one of our home-grown terrorists, born and raised New York State. He attacked what he believed to be a tyrannical federal government. Tried and convicted in a civilian court, he was executed in June of 2001, less than three months before 9/11.

•    Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, one of the planners of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was tried in New York City in 1997 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Incidentally, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is his uncle.

•     Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, aka “The Blind Sheikh,” is serving a life sentence after he and nine others were convicted of “seditious conspiracy” for planning terrorist attacks on a number of civilian targets in the U.S. In 1996 he was sentenced to life in prison. At the time, he said the U.S. would certainly kill him once he was in prison. Apparently, the paperwork for his assassination in lockup got lost somewhere.

•    El Sayyid Nosair stood trial as a co-conspirator of Rahman. He too received a life sentence.

•     Richard Reid, whom we in the label-happy media named “The Shoe Bomber,” is serving a life sentence after he tried to destroy a jetliner in flight in late in  2001 by setting off explosives hidden in his shoe.

•    José Padilla, charged with planning to explode a “dirty bomb,” was convicted instead on conspiracy charges. He is serving a 17 year sentence.

•    Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the Sept. 11 conspirators and the only one who failed to board an aircraft that day, is serving a life sentence.

The feds apparently think they have enough of a slam-dunk that they can try Mohammed without falling back on his confession, which was obtained after illegal questioning under torture. More on that in a moment.

We already get tons of criminals who claim not to have been Mirandized or who say they were tortured or coerced in some way. In some cases, it may even be true. But if they can’t offer proof or corroboration in some way, those accusations do not carry a lot of weight.

In this case, Mohammed was tortured, water-boarded more than 100 times, and former Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly saying “oh, that’s not torture” won’t change that fact, or its consequences. Any competent defense attorney will bring up the torture, if the prosecution attempts to use the confession.

Mohammed, by the way, only confessed some time after the torture sessions were ended and more traditional interrogation techniques were applied.

The problem is that you can’t go screwing around with what is really a very good legal system without paying some kind of consequence.

The previous administration played fast and loose with the rules as it suited them, and now we have a real mess on our hands.

This whole matter hinges on how serious “We the People” take the Constitution, truly the foundation of what and who we are as a nation.

We are not some tribal society, in which anything goes as long as it benefits that one narrow group of people. We are distinguished by the fact that we are a nation linked and shaped by a set of codified rules, not by race, creed, or religion. If we cannot abide by our own laws, then we are little more than a very large mob.

Or, to be blunter, we would be no better than terrorists ourselves.

Bob is right. This IS a disaster, but a disaster of our own making.

But surely it is plain how we would compound that disaster to make special cases out of suspected terrorists, to set aside the rights guaranteed them under the document that defines us? To do so would be to grant them victory.

As hard as it is to think about the possibility that these guys could go free, in the greater sense I think we have no other choice than to grant them the rights we would give any other thugs whose crimes were less spectacular.

I don’t think the civilian trials of these alleged terrorists will throw a wrench into our legal system. It may be true that they walk free because We the People set aside the Constitution and took a short-cut. If that occurs, it is we who threw the wrench.

A friend asked, just this morning, asked if I realized that in a lot of countries, Mohammed would simply be paraded out into some public place and summarily shot.

Yes, I know that. That is the point. We are better than that. And the bad guys hate us for it.
© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
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