My first reaction when I heard that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four of his cohorts would be tried in federal court in my hometown of New York was: Of course we're using our justice system. We're America. That's just how we roll.
It's a flip response, but it's also true. We've long held ourselves up as an example for the rest of the world. Woodrow Wilson set our national mission as helping make the world "safe for democracy." Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed "Four Freedoms" that are fundamental rights of man. John F. Kennedy sent the word of U.S. commitment to human rights forth "to friend and foe alike" across the globe. Ronald Reagan spent a career talking about the United States as a "shining city on a hill . . . built on rocks stronger than oceans."
But being a shining example for the rest of the world sometimes requires suiting our actions to our words. The decision to publicly try Mohammed and the others is one such time. It demonstrates that we have the courage of our convictions.
The prospect of such a trial—and of bringing terrorists to the United States to face justice—has prompted a range of objections that seem to have varying, and often tenuous, relations with the real world. "Why move them into the United States while we are still under the threat from radical jihadists?" Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, asked on CBS's Face the Nation. As if terrorists need an excuse to target America, or New York specifically? As my brother, who lives a half-mile from ground zero and less than a mile from the federal courthouse—and welcomes the trial as a reminder that we are a nation of laws, despite our Bush-era behavior—commented to me about New York being targeted, "We already are, right?"
Anywhere Americans gather is a potential target. This is the fact of life in the 21st century. But we don't compromise our commitment to our justice system out of fear that it might incite terrorists.
Some critics argue that, as the noted jurist Sarah Palin put it on her Facebook page, "Criminal defense attorneys will now enter into delaying tactics and other methods in the hope of securing some kind of win for their 'clients.' " Well, yes. The whole world will see that our system allows even the worst of the worst to mount as vigorous a defense as they can.
But the notion that some Johnnie Cochran figure will use legal trickery to let the evildoers walk free is ludicrous. The next terrorist who wins at trial in New York will be the first. And keep in mind that Mohammed has confessed to his role in the 9/11 attacks. As former Clinton administration counterterrorism official Steven Simon wrote last week in the New York Times, "Any anxiety about a 'not guilty' verdict seems unwarranted."
Mohammed won't even be the first alleged 9/11 conspirator tried in federal court. Remember that Zacarias Moussaoui—the so-called 20th hijacker—is serving a life sentence. Indeed, our court system has demonstrated repeatedly an ability to handle terrorism cases. Ask Moussaoui, would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, or any of the 300 other domestic and international terrorists currently moldering behind bars. "You put terrorism on one side, you put our legal system on the other, and our legal system comes out ahead," then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in 1994 after the conviction of the first World Trade Center bombers. (Giuliani now sings a different tune.)
Also without merit is the argument that Mohammed will use a trial as some sort of platform to expound upon his worldviews. Palin again: "The trial will afford Mohammed the opportunity to grandstand and make use of his time in front of the world media to rally his disgusting terrorist cohorts." Put aside the facts that television cameras won't be allowed in the courtroom and that the presiding judge can be expected to keep control in his or her courtroom. What is the fear here?
The most compelling concern is for the feelings of the families of 9/11 victims. "What's an actual insult to the victims of 9/11 is the idea that America is not strong enough to withstand the blatherings of a mass murderer," national security blogger Spencer Ackerman wrote after the New York trial was announced. "Think of what a cathartic moment it will be when America sees the face of the man considered to be [Osama bin Laden's] most efficient henchman and he delivers a pitiful harangue to a bank of cameras. No one will be emboldened to do anything but laugh."
And looking to a global audience, what is more likely to turn persuadable Muslims for or against the United States: a shrouded, military trial—of the sort that would seem a familiar sham in the Middle East—or transparent, equal justice under the law?
And there is another danger we face, and that is making Mohammed and other terrorists into something greater than what they are. Judging by the debate surrounding bringing Guantánamo Bay detainees onto U.S. soil, one would think they were superhuman. They are despicable, depraved murderers and thugs, and they should be tried and convicted as such. Dealing with terrorists certainly requires more than the nation's criminal justice system, but to eschew it in the name of war elevates terrorists by buying into their own conceits that they are engaged in acts of war rather than mass murder. They're not an army, they're fanatics.
As President Obama told CNN recently , "The notion that we have to be fearful that these terrorists possess some special powers . . . I think that has been a fundamental mistake."