For those of us who have fought vociferously for the use of the federal court system to try terrorism suspects, the Obama administration’s decision is, on its surface, a defeat. The numbers make it clear: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 174 individuals have been convicted of jihadi-related terrorism in federal court, an 87 percent conviction rate, according to the most recent figures from the NYU Center on Law and Security terrorist trial report card.
From the early 1990s on, the courts have learned how to handle the challenges of terrorism cases, from classified or tainted evidence to the relevance of al-Qaeda’s strategic and tactical goals. The abandonment of the hard-earned professionalism of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys is a loss.
But it is not a defeat for justice itself. It is time to give up our long-standing protest and consider the good that can come from these trials — even if they are held at Guantanamo, and even if they are conducted by the military.
In prosecuting Mohammed, we will be trying the individual without whom there presumably would have been no 9/11 attack; the fact that he is secondary to Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy does not reduce his guilt. In a sense, he is the Eichmann of the attack, and his trial is no less important than was that of Hitler’s operational director.
Trying Mohammed and his co-conspirators for a crime that took place 10 years ago can only be seen as a positive. It is unfair that the country has waited this long to bring to justice anyone directly linked to 9/11. If part of the purpose of trials is to bring closure to the open wounds that result from wrongdoing, then the trial matters more than the venue, the jurisdiction or even the system itself.
The country’s need for some sort of closure around the Sept. 11 attacks was illustrated in part by the fear of having this trial in Manhattan. Although it is likely that few victims’ families will now be able to watch the proceedings in person, they will know what is happening, and they will be able to achieve some sense of justice and begin to heal.
There is a further benefit. The details of the 9/11 conspiracy remain a mystery to much of the American public. The trial will turn mystery into fact.
At present, we know generally about bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s determination to harm the United States and the failures of U.S. intelligence. But we don’t know details about these five men and their step-by-step intersection with the attacks — details that were outlined in the criminal indictment that was unsealed in New York this past week. The indictment lists the sequence of activities that made up the attacks and highlights the criminality of the conspiracy. Presumably, those facts will be central to the evidence presented at trial at Guantanamo.