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A battlefield in the courtroom

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, November 20, 2009

Critics of Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to bring the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four other accused terrorists to New York for trial can't seriously believe the city will have trouble handling the expected "trial of the century" hoopla. The critics can't really think a judge is going to give Khalid Sheik Mohammed an open microphone to spew his jihadist views, or fear that a jury -- sitting just blocks from Ground Zero -- will look for reasons to let an accused mass murderer off on some technicality.

Everyone knows that the bloodthirsty blowhard -- whom officials often refer to by his initials, KSM -- is never going to see the light of day. The uproar is really about the word "war." Outrage is being voiced by those who worry that Holder and President Obama are abandoning the Bush-era doctrine of a "war on terrorism" that must at all times be conducted by military means.

Those critics are wrong. The problem is that we can vanquish al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups, but still be left with a larger enemy: a militant, fundamentalist perversion of Islam. We can and should go after Osama bin Laden and his collaborators with relentless determination and, yes, that fight should be led by our armed forces. But to achieve a meaningful victory, we also have to win the war of ideas -- and in that philosophical and theological struggle, the concept of justice is a key battlefield.

It's amazing that so many people who insist on the "war on terrorism" framework apparently have such little interest in understanding the enemy, which seems to me the only way to find the enemy's vulnerabilities. The jihadist narrative is largely about justice, or rather what radical imams and their followers perceive as injustice.

In the enemy's version of history, the West -- meaning the United States, Israel, Britain and what used to be called Christendom -- has a long history of exploiting the Muslim world. We occupy Muslim lands to steal their resources. We install corrupt lackeys as their rulers. For all our high and mighty talk about fairness and justice, we reserve these luxuries for ourselves. In this warped worldview, we deserve any atrocities that jihadist "warriors" might commit against us.

Protesting that all this is absurd and obscene does not make it go away. And our troops' military success actually helps to further the jihadist narrative about a "crusade" against Islam.

It's ironic that many of the officials and commentators who are so upset about the decision to give KSM a civilian trial were also quick to call the Fort Hood killings an act of terrorism. If the suspect, Maj. Nidal Hasan, is indeed a terrorist -- and not just a deranged man who snapped -- then his awful rampage helps demonstrate my point. Hasan reportedly considered the U.S. military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan a war against Islam, at one point arguing that Muslim soldiers should be excused from combat as conscientious objectors. In other words, he apparently bought at least part of the jihadist line. If killing a terrorist in Kandahar creates one in Killeen, we'll never make progress.

In this context, putting KSM and the others on trial in a civilian proceeding on U.S. soil is not just a duty but also an opportunity. It's a way to show that we do not have one system of justice for ourselves and another for Muslims, that we give defendants their day in court, that we insist they be vigorously defended by competent counsel -- that we really do practice what we preach.

Even if a military tribunal would be just as fair -- and a military court might be even more offended than a civilian one by the fact that KSM was subjected to waterboarding -- a trial by men and women in uniform would be seen as an extension of the "war on Islam."

Holder's choice is not without risk. The biggest question I have is whether an impartial jury could be impaneled in New York. And while I believe the chance of an acquittal is incredibly remote, if it happened, KSM would be kept in indefinite detention anyway -- a nightmare scenario.

But there's one more huge benefit to a civilian trial: It would show the preachers of hatred and their followers that we're not afraid of them or their poisonous ideas. It would show that they haven't changed us or our ideals -- and that they never will.

I say bring it on.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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