The Obama administration’s decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other al-Qaeda suspects in a civilian court marks a bold step to show the world what America’s justice system stands for — transparency and due process. It is a move fraught with risks, but in this newspaper’s opinion, the benefits of a full public trial outweigh the potential pitfalls.
Critics argue that a civilian court trial will give Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, a stage for his extremist views and that the proceedings could attract additional acts of terrorism. Considering the allegations of torture — Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times — some ask whether a jury might be swayed to acquit him or a civilian judge might throw out the case altogether. All are valid points.
The civilian court system, however, has shown itself capable on at least 20 previous occasions of prosecuting high-magnitude terrorism cases. Mohammed’s nephew, Ramzi Yousef, is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement after being convicted along with four others for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Certainly, the trial provided Yousef a brief spotlight, but today he lives in a confined world of silent isolation.
Administration officials have long known of the legal hurdle posed by the methods used to extract Mohammed’s confessions. That’s why the FBI has established “clean teams” of investigators charged with finding independent evidence untainted by torture. Attorney General Eric Holder says he is confident this evidence will win convictions.
The administration is drawing a clear distinction about the nature of certain crimes by designating five other al-Qaeda suspects for military, as opposed to civilian, trail. The five are charged in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, a purely military target. There is no contradiction here: military courts for attacks on the military, civilian courts for attacks on civilians.
It could be argued that the 9/11 attacks constituted an act of war, automatically giving jurisdiction to military courts. That might have been the case had the United States applied the rules of war from the beginning, declaring al-Qaeda detainees as prisoners of war and affording them their rights under the Geneva Conventions. But the Bush administration made no such application, instead going to extreme legal efforts to avoid being bound by the Geneva Conventions.
Some assert that the new age of global terrorism requires a special, more flexible application of justice for which the civilian court system is ill-suited. We disagree. The kinds of terrorism practiced by al-Qaeda, or by domestic actors such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, ultimately boil down to criminal acts of murder, intentional maiming and sedition, among others.
Those crimes deserve to be tried in civilian courts so the world can be reminded of their full horror and so survivors and the victims’ families can witness the meticulous administration of justice. That’s the American way.