Eric H. Holder Jr., a man who I recently have sued three times, accusing him of wrongly locking up people (two are now free), announced this week that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM*) and four other terrorism suspects will be tried in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York for their offenses. Up until now these men have had no trial. They have been wallowing in detention at Guantanamo – KSM since 2003. A system of justice has yet successfully to be developed to try them. Mr. Holder decided to use, instead, a justice system already established, the federal court system.
Like any time anything happens with the current presidential administration, as soon as a proposal or a plan or a policy is announced, within seconds out of the woodwork come the critics. I categorize the criticisms of Mr. Holder’s decision into two categories: 1) the court and New York City cannot handle a trial, and 2) KSM and the others will use the court as a propaganda forum providing them with yet another propaganda victory [the first victory being successful terrorist attacks]. Calling Holder a Nazi or a Socialist or a Stalinist or accusing him of conspiring purposefully to destroy America, common ridiculous accusations against the Obama administration, would be as cogent as these criticisms.
First, the idea that New York cannot handle the trial. Do people think no one thought of this? New York’s Police Commissioner thought of this. Raymond Kelly, who I would imagine thinks about these kind of things more than most, thinks New York can handle this. Traffic will still flow. People will be able to go to work. Order will be maintained. The United Nations is in New York. Real Nazis and Socialists and Stalinists and people conspiring to purposefully destroy America come to town all the time and New York survives. The courts themselves have already held terrorism trials and have held all kinds of other attention-grabbing trials. They know how to handle this. The judges know what to do. It is not like they are going to fly in Lance Ito to run the proceedings. Do people really think that Mr. Holder would bring these defendants to New York if he could not convict them? It seems to me that supporters of America’s capacities who believe that American power and grit can transform Iraq and Afghanistan into flourishing democracies, intimidate North Korea and Iran to abandon nuclear ambitions, and can win a war on drugs are being insultingly negative about America to think it cannot pull off some trials in a court in New York City.
The other criticism is even stranger – the idea that KSM and the other defendants will use the trial to spread propaganda. First, I imagine that most people who think such things know about court rooms from watching Matlock – where people go on and on, mostly Andy Griffith goes on and on (writer’s confession – I never watched a whole episode) – with no rules as to who may say what, when, and how. Matlock writers know about as much about legal relevance and the rules of evidence as Barney Fife. A real court room is not a place where people can go on saying what comes to mind. A few times attorneys have tried to present me as a witness to explain my view of certain laws. They have failed. Judges don’t allow people, even defendants, to get up and spout their opinions willy nilly. Here is a hypothetical transcript of what will happen if KSM’s lawyer tries to create a propaganda forum for KSM at his trial:
Attorney for KSM: Sheikh Mohammad, why did you blow up the Twin Towers?
U.S. Attorney: Objection. Relevance.
Defendants do not get to explain why they do what they do at their trials. Ok, maybe at the sentencing phase. After a trial and a conviction, there will be a sentencing phase. Stacks of documents are filed and testimonials presented of the terrible events of 9-11 and the impact on thousands and thousands of people. Potentially, KSM will be allowed to speak regarding his sentence. We won’t hear a tape of it. We’ll hear redactions of it read by Katie Court. We won’t see pictures of it. We’ll see sketches of it. He will ask to die. He will likely be obliged.
Why don’t these critical pundits consider the other side of the propaganda puzzle? How does America treat people who do evil things? Do we kidnap them, lock them up in communicado for years and years without trial, deprive them with contact with the outside world, and torture them like “other countries” do? No, we afford them representation, give them a trial with a broad spectrum of rights – including a lawyer, the right to a jury, the right to challenge evidence, and the right to submit their own (relevant) evidence, and then give them appellate rights. What will be the propaganda impact of that? Will millions of people around the world watch such a “spectacle” and conclude America is an evil country trying to spread oppression around the world, or rather, conclude as Ronald Reagan used to say, that America is a “Shining City Upon a Hill.” My bet, the latter. Now that will be definitely be a propaganda victory.
*To paraphrase a jokeI read in the New Yorker attributed to Barney Frank, regarding LGBT’s, maybe the funniest joke I ever read, one might think that KSM stands for some kind of fried meat, and indeed he soon may be. November 15, 2009.