9/11 Trials Head to the Big Apple

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the “mastermind” behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, would be put on trial in New York along with four other terrorism suspects, there was a predictable outcry. The right wing claimed it was a foolish decision to give terrorists the same legal rights afforded to American citizens. The decision, however, is wholly appropriate and consistent with judicial precedent and the high moral standards the very same right-wing people always uphold as American ideals that need protecting. When the time comes to practice them, the right wing is reluctant to prove how effective they are.

The concept of putting terrorists on trial is not new. It goes without saying that every domestic terrorist has been tried in civilian, not military court. The U.S. has tried everything from murders committed by foreign visitors to espionage, all cases involving crimes committed by citizens of foreign countries. Just as an American accused of a crime in another country is tried in that country, visitors or foreign invaders are subject to our criminal justice system when they are accused in the US.

Since 2001, we have litigated 195 terrorism cases in civil court and maintained a 91 percent conviction rate. Perhaps the right wing is concerned that if we try these terrorists, many of whom were subjected to torture, the convictions won’t occur because of the extra-legal methods used to procure confessions and other information. This is unlikely – suspects scheduled to be tried have a mountain of evidence against them, even discounting the confessions and other information obtained through “enhanced interrogation.” Prosecutors do not push cases forward without a reasonable expectation they will obtain convictions, and this high profile case is no different. Civil court also expedites the process, as military tribunals offer an appeals process that goes directly to the Supreme Court – a process that may take years, unlike the civil trials where all evidence is presented for the conviction. The tribunal option is already being utilized for terror suspects lacking sufficient evidence for speedy civil conviction as well as a forum for crimes committed outside of the U.S.

So why does the right still insist that these four suspects be tried in military tribunals? They claim that since we are “at war” with these terrorists and they are “at war” with us, this is the logical thing to do. They point out that we would never conceive of trying those that attacked us at Pearl Harbor to be brought into civilian court. Well, of course not – the United States was at war with Japan during World War II, so logically any soldiers captured by the U.S. would be held accountable in that venue. Terrorists, however, are not soldiers in an enemy country’s army – they are civilians that take it upon themselves to bring chaos and death to innocent civilians. We have referred to terrorists as “enemy combatants,” leading many to erroneously associate them with war and military jurisdiction. These suspects were apprehended by local or American law enforcement agencies and not the military, making them more suitable for trial in civil court. Mohammed was even captured in Pakistan – a country with which we are not at war.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been outspoken in arguing against the trials being held in New York, as it puts the high profile city at “unnecessary risk.” New York is well equipped for such high profile cases, as it has the law enforcement personnel and venues appropriate for such cases. And what threat do terror suspects in custody pose anyway? Anti-American sentiment is not a new thing, and certainly would only help illustrate why the suspects are guilty. Let’s not forget that this is the city these terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001 – what better place to finally bring them to justice than in the city they wronged? I disagree that this indicates that America is not taking this fight against terrorism seriously – in fact, we are finally taking it seriously.

The most basic, fundamental reason we fight the terrorists is because we are defending our freedom, and ideals that make us an example to the rest of the world. Our criminal justice system is one of those examples of freedom at work. Once more the United States can demonstrate to the world that justice prevails in the court of law. Why do we defend this justice system and hold it up as an example of democracy at work if we then try to avoid using it to bring some of the worst criminals to justice? Putting people in a legal limbo is something third world countries do – not the United States of America. We are an established world power and an example of a modern society. Torture and indefinitely holding suspects in prison without trial and due process is as un-American as we can get. Our soldiers fought for our system of justice along with every other freedom we cherish, and if we cannot count on that process in this instance, are we willing to admit they fought in vain?

These trials need to take place. This is the right way to bring these terrorists to justice and is the first crucial step in getting our good name back. We need to show the world that we believe in our system of justice and have the moral high ground.

Kerry Wakely is a second-year English major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.