Sunday, November 15, 2009

Terror Trials in the US

A great friend of TONE, The LighthouseKeeper, asked my opinion of the decision to try the leading terror suspects at Guantanamo in federal court in New York City. What follows is a slightly edited version of my response:

Seems to me that if I were a potential juror I'd offer the view that were I the judge, I'd probably dismiss the case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the guy who was waterboarded 183 times) for prosecutorial (i.e., government) misconduct. But as a juror I think I'd be able to judge guilt or innocence. One of the problems the defense will have is that the guy freely admitted, indeed apparently boasted or his role in 9/11. That's 2800 killings.

I do have some question about whether these guys should be tried as criminals. I don't do criminal law, but it seems to me that we don't have a good dividing line between war and crime. The British did not execute American rebels, and in those few instances on the frontier when rebels (and their families) were massacred, we consider that behavior criminal. The North did not execute Confederate rebels, apart from spies and the like. We did not--as least as a matter of government policy--execute Aguinaldo's rebels or the Moros in the Phillipines. Or captured Indians. So, when does an act of war deserve to be treated as such and not as crime? I think there ought to be a principled dividing line, and I don't know that there is.

I have no doubt that the people to be tried believe that they are in a political/religious/military (put those in whatever order you choose) struggled against us. How should we repond?

Being against capital punishment, I would have a hard time bringing in a death sentence. On the other hand, as I told a federal judge who was at a conference I attended recently, these are the kind of cases that might cause me to question my premises.

As for trying these people in the civilian system, I'm all for it. Again, it's not clear to me--although it may be in the law--where the dividing line between civil and military courts lies, but I lean toward the civilian. Especially for an act like 9/11 that was perpetrated in the US, not in a zone of military operations or occupation. I think expressions of fear about terrorist attacks on the US as a result are overdrawn and not worthy of us. We're in a fight that we didn't choose; would that all fights were those we don't choose. But we cannot cower.

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