The American system of justice has won an important vote of confidence from the Obama administration, signaling an overdue return to due process and the rule of law.
By deciding to move the trials of five Guantanamo detainees accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to New York City for trial in a civilian court, the administration reaffirmed confidence in a system of justice that has repeatedly shown itself capable of handling terrorism cases.
That’s what happened with the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui, and scores of other terrorism suspects tried in open court. Some 347 convicted terrorists are being held in American prisons after facing justice in U.S. courts, by the count of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
There is every reason to believe that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his cohorts will eventually join them. The obligation to stand trial in an open court of law is a defeat for the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who once expressed a desire to plead guilty in the military commission system established in Guantanamo.
Because the trial venue has been discredited around the Islamic world — and among U.S. allies — fulfilling his wish would have solidified his status as martyr on behalf of a distorted version of Islam.
Wisely, the plea was disallowed. Mohammed and the others will have to face a judge and jury, hear the evidence against them, and be given the opportunity to offer a defense — all the features of a legal system that they reject precisely because it is emblematic of the rule of law and a civilization they despise.
Trying the accused conspirators in New York obliges them to return to the scene of the crime, a fundamental tenet of American jurisprudence. It gives the trial a transparency it never could achieve in Guantanamo and offers families who lost loved ones the chance to see justice done.
From the outset, the decision to create a separate system of justice rested on the mistaken notion that Americans could not simultaneously uphold the rule of law and remain safe from terrorism. As a result, mass murderers and common criminals were elevated into a special class, an exalted warrior status they do not deserve.
Attorney Gen. Eric Holder made a valid distinction between this set of accused conspirators — accused of the mass murder of civilians — and others like Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, who are accused of violations of the rules of war. He and another group of Guantanamo detainees will also be brought to the United States, but instead of civilian trials they will face military commissions.
These panels have been revamped by Congress, which has barred them from using statements obtained from harsh interrogations and made it harder for them to use hearsay evidence. Still, they fall short of conventional standards of due process. Trying terrorists in this venue remains problematic.
Given the extensive fear-mongering over the issue of trying terrorists here at home, it took courage for the Obama administration to step forward. Within minutes of Holder’s public announcement, House Minority Leader John Boehner repeated charges that the administration had acted irresponsibly and put Americans in danger.
Boehner should have more faith. The American system of justice has served this country well for more than 200 years and will no doubt show that it is up to the task of dealing with the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.