Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to bring five accused co-conspirators in the 9/11 terrorist attacks to criminal trial in federal court in New York is a victory for American justice. Republican senators, of course, strenuously tried to generate baseless partisan controversy over the decision last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings. But for all their hyperbole, they could not refute the central issue: The terrorist acts charged against the defendants were criminal acts and not the acts of a hostile state in a bona fide war. The defendants should be prosecuted in a United States federal court as a matter of law and constitutional duty.
The federal court system is not just the correct judicial venue for the pending trial. It is also superior to the sort of ad hoc military commission that President Bush wrongly created in an attempt to divert the defendants from proper and public legal procedure.
That commission system is deeply flawed and has been heatedly contested by military lawyers assigned to represent the defendants. It deviated sharply from the customary due-process rights of defendants in military trials. And in the end, it failed to hold a single trial, leaving defendants in an interminable and insupportable legal limbo through all the years of their detention.
Their legal limbo status also deprived the nation, and especially the relatives of the 9/11 victims, of the legal justice that all deserved. It also tarnished the nation’s image and shamed our claim to be a nation of laws and just judicial process. In the ideological competition that America faces in winning hearts and minds away from the grasp of religious extremism and terrorism, the harm of that is greater than critics of the attorney general’s decision want to acknowledge.
Shifting the trials to this nation’s traditional civilian federal court system not only satisfies constitutional standards, it also promises, at last, to actually produce a trial and bring the alleged mass-murderers to justice. After more than eight years since the 9/11 attacks, it’s high time that was done.
Republican critics argue that a public trial under normal federal guidelines will allow defendants a public platform to recount torturous interrogations (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was water-boarded 183 times, among many other documented abuses); to use their testimony to inflame Islamic extremists; or to drag out a civilian trial for long costly months at taxpayer expense.
All that smacks of an attempt to create another partisan wedge issue. It certainly does not suggest credible reason to sustain a secret failed system that has already brought shame on America’s lofty judicial image. In any case, there is no reason to distrust the ability of our federal court system to hold a secure, fair and expeditious trial of alleged terrorists.
The ability of federal courts to conduct trials of accused terrorists has been demonstrated previously in extremely high-profile trials. The courts have traditionally managed to protect state secrets, to honor national security and to appropriately restrain the conduct of defendants, all without jeopardizing customary legal principles and adherence to the rule of law.
Bringing the defendants to trial so near the site of the Twin Towers destruction also provides fitting symbolism. It confirms both the resilience of America and the strength of our core values. It also will help close the door on the abuses and degradation that we now know characterized the operation of the camps, the misshapen military commission system at Guantanamo Bay and the mistreatment of detainees. All are good reasons to support the attorney general’s decision.