Civilians Can't Try Terrorists?
What Hooey!

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright October 2009

to 9 Feb 2010 update

to 4 Apr 2011 update


In this Wall Street Journal Op-Ed of Oct 19th, Micheal B. Mukasey, who was attorney general of the United States from 2007 to 2009, says in opening:

"The Justice Department claims that our courts are well suited to the task.

Based on my experience trying such cases, and what I saw as attorney general, they aren't. That is not to say that civilian courts cannot ever handle terrorist prosecutions, but rather that their role in a war on terror—to use an unfashionably harsh phrase—should be, as the term 'war' would suggest, a supporting and not a principal role."


There's no quicker way to bring my blood to boil than by suggesting that terrorism is so special that rule of law can't handle it.

This is exactly the thinking that brought on the whole 9-11 Decade of Terror that we are now finally seeing the end of. The War on Terror has been America's biggest blunder in this decade, at least, and perhaps bigger than the blunder that the Vietnam War was part of.

Mukasey goes on to point out that trying terrorists is expensive and... well... scary would be the way I would paraphrase it. He seems to think of a terrorist trial as a mob boss trial-on-steroids. I would agree that it has some things in common with a mob boss trial, but the "on-steroids" part I would seriously question.

Personally, if I was a Manhattan person and given a choice between being a participant in a trial that would anger people living in Jersey, and one that would anger people living in caves south of Kabul... no question about which one would cause me more worry!

I would call Mr. Mukasey's opinion that terrorists are a special case an example of the scar that 9-11 created in America's thinking, particularly in the thinking of those living in New York City and working in the Pentagon, where people got to be not just spectators but participants in the Greatest Terrorist Act of the Century.

I would suggest to Mr. Mukasey that he needs to rise above his fear and recognize that if civilian courts can't handle this problem, then he is disenfranchising civilians from being part of the solution to terrorism, and that is a big part of the recipe for more decades of terrorist disaster.



Terrorism must become a crime, not a war.

As long as terrorism is a war, only warriors can fight it.

If terrorism becomes a crime once again, then people will be enfranchised and this problem will be solved by community action. People can spot terrorists a hundred times more effectively than government workers can because there are a million times as many people in communities as there are government workers hired to be looking for terrorists. But that doesn't matter unless those people who spot the trouble believe that their actions can help solve the problem -- unless they believe they are enfranchised on this issue.

And rule of law -- civilian courts trying terrorists -- is part of enfranchisement.

update: Feb 2010

It's sad, but the Obama administration has fouled up a step in the right direction. Here's a WSJ 9 Feb 2010 editorial, Cheney's Revenge, on the current state of dealing with Gitmo and the KSM trials. It points out that while the Obama administration likely had a symbolic show trial in mind for KSM, the real world version would be expensive, uncertain and scary, and support in New York City for the trial evaporated.

Changing the venue away from Manhattan makes good legal sense -- it can convincingly be argued that the people of New York City are too close to these events to be unbiased.

But that's not what's being argued. What's being argued is that terrorists are going to come up with some Hollywood plot device that average metro area New York gangsters don't have, and spectacularly disrupt the trial, so the trial will have to have extra layers of expensive and disruptive security that a high-profile gangster trial would not need.

...Eh? Oh! This is like the liquid bomb plot device that spooked the TSA in 2006! ...Right! I understand now!

And this is a perfect example of why this trial should be conducted, and in a thoroughly civil fashion. It is to rehumanize America's view of terrorism -- make Americans feel that these are bad people, but no more that that -- just bad people. These terrorists are not magical people. If they get released for any reason and go back to being terrorists, they are not going to accomplish anything super bad, they will accomplish average bad.

We need to see that America's treating terrorists as super evil beings is just as silly, and just as damaging, as the Middle East's treating America as the Great Satan. One step in ending this special view is a civilian trial -- even if it results in terrorists being released. Conducting the trial, no matter what outcome, strengthens the rule of law. And it is the enfranchising effect on the community that rule of law brings about that will permanently stop terrorism.


update: April 2011

Amazingly... this is still going on! Here is a 4 Apr 11 Christian Science Monitor article, In abrupt reversal, 9/11 suspects to get Guantanamo military tribunals by Warren Richey, in which Attorney General Eric Holders says (I paraphrase), "OK. I give. Let's go with the new and improved military tribunals at Guantanamo." This 5 Apr 11 WSJ editorial, Vindicating Guantanamo, covers the same issue.

Sheesh! Talking about a blunder scar getting bigger and growing more inflamed and pussy! This is exactly the kind of thing the American colonials where holding against the British in the 1770's! Long detentions without charges, leisurely justice, secret courts... we've come a long way, baby, and not in the right direction. <sigh> It is just incredible to me that Americans are letting this travesty of justice go on and on and on.


-- The End --