By Hosting U.S. Terrorism Trials, Alexandria Can Serve the Nation

By Jim Moran
Saturday, May 9, 2009

Obama administration officials say a final decision has not been made about where to relocate the 241 foreign nationals being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and/or where to put them on trial. Such public statements, though, have not stopped rumors about which federal prisons or military brigs might be used to house the detainees. Indeed, the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act introduced this week and other legislation seek to prevent detainees from being sent to certain states or taxpayer funds from being spent to transfer Guantanamo detainees to U.S. soil. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently that he expects 535 bills, one for each senator and House member, to be introduced before a decision is made.

Some of the speculation has focused on the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse and Detention Center in Alexandria, which is in the district I represent in Congress.

First, let's be clear: President Obama and Sen. John McCain both pledged last year to close the Guantanamo facility because they recognized that the United States is governed by the rule of law and defined by our embrace of universal human rights. Indefinitely detaining individuals without charge violates the most basic principle of habeas corpus, greatly damages our international reputation, and fuels both terrorist recruitment and anti-American sentiment.

While closing Guantanamo would go a long way toward removing this stain on our national character, the decision to do so was the easy part. What to do with the detainees who remain of the more than 700 sent there since 2001 is much more difficult.

Like those in any other congressional districts, we Virginians would rather not have terrorism suspects held and tried in our back yard. Should some of the detainees at Guantanamo be sent to the Alexandria courthouse, there is no question that people in the immediate vicinity -- more than 10,000 residents and workers during business hours -- would be affected. The strain on local law enforcement and other public safety officers would be significant. The media attention following such a decision would probably generate public outrage in some circles over safety concerns, regardless of the security measures implemented.

Often, though, doing the right thing is neither popular nor convenient.

By and large, Alexandrians are civic-minded people and are ready to do their duty if it serves the greater good. They have shown this public spirit time and again. The "20th hijacker," Zacarias Moussaoui, who participated in planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, was held and prosecuted in the Alexandria courthouse. Others who have been brought to justice in the court include the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh; Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad; and spies Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames.

In each case, Alexandria demonstrated the kind of courage and patriotism that can be traced to the city's roots as the home town of George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

Taking the easy route and joining the chorus of those crying "not in my back yard" is appealing. But that's not the Alexandria I know and have represented in Congress for nearly 20 years. Even before that, I served as mayor of the city, and I am confident that if asked to step forward, Alexandria would demonstrate resolve for a higher purpose, echoing John F. Kennedy's call to accept the challenge presented because it is what happens to be right and good for our nation.

Trying the accused, no matter how heinous the accusation, in a fair and transparent judicial procedure will reestablish our international moral authority and thus strengthen our national security.

Let there be no mistake: I'm not advocating for this burden. If there are more suitable locations in which to try the detainees, it would be a relief to all in this area.

But should President Obama determine that Alexandria needs to play a reasonably limited role in a nationwide effort to bring justice to the Guantanamo detainees and close this unfortunate chapter of American history, I am confident that Alexandrians will stand strong as they always have: gritting their teeth, stiffening their spines and carrying the load required so that the American values of justice and the rule of law are not overridden but, rather, respected and honored, as is our heritage as a great nation.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Virginia's 8th District in the U.S. House.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company