Prosecuting terror

Baltimore Sun

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. made the right decision to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four accomplices in criminal court in New York rather than before a military commission abroad. A criminal proceeding on U.S. soil that is open to the public and the media will demonstrate to the world the strength of American justice and the fairness of our laws. The notion that the government should avoid doing so because of the imagined threat of terrorist retribution is a travesty.

Mr. Holder called putting Mr. Mohammed on trial in Manhattan near where the twin towers fell "the toughest decision I've had to make as attorney general." Prosecutors won't be able to introduce statements the defendant made that were coerced, and they can't use evidence obtained from sensitive intelligence sources without jeopardizing national security. A defiant Mr. Mohammed could attempt to disrupt the proceedings or use them as a propaganda platform for Islamist jihad. And his lawyers will surely argue for dropping all charges because he was tortured.

Still, we can't imagine Mr. Holder would have taken the risk of a criminal trial unless he were convinced the government had more than enough admissible evidence to convict. Mr. Holder, a former New Yorker, seemed acutely aware of the symbolic significance of trying these defendants in the city where their alleged crimes were committed.

Bringing the suspects to the U.S. for trial is a key step in realizing President Barack Obama's plan to close the Guantanamo detention facility and limit the use of military commissions to try terrorism cases. But Mr. Holder also said five other detainees now held at Guantanamo will be prosecuted before a modified military tribunal operating under new legal safeguards recently enacted by Congress.

Some lawmakers have criticized the idea of trying terror suspects on U.S. soil, saying they are too dangerous to be allowed into the country and that their presence here would heighten the risk of another terrorist attack. Yet the government has successfully prosecuted such cases in the past, including that of Ramzi Yousef and his co-conspirators, who were found guilty of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and sentenced to long prison terms. They are among hundreds of convicted terrorists now being held in U.S. maximum security facilities.

The idea that the nation's institutions aren't up to the task of successfully prosecuting people accused of killing more than 3,000 American citizens is a self-defeating delusion that concedes a moral victory to the terrorists they could never achieve on the battlefield. Would Al-Qaeda be any less likely to attempt another domestic strike if Mr. Mohammed's trial were held at Guantanamo rather than in New York? Hardly; they will attack us whenever and wherever they can until they are finally defeated. But if the terrorists can make us so fearful of retribution that we lose faith in our own most cherished institutions and beliefs, then they've already won half the battle. Mr. Holder's decision to try the suspects here is a bold statement to the world that the U.S. will not and should not ever allow itself to be intimidated by terrorist threats

Readers respond No, we should not trade our constitutional guarantees or our rule of law for security. Rendition and torture were wrong, but that does not mean the Obama administration is right to bring these men to trial in civilian courts.

They will be getting a great stage to strut their hatred for America, as Zacarias Moussaoui, their friend in terror, got in the Virginia courts. Surely they will demand terrorists be called as witnesses, and surely the CIA will be put on trial for Osama bin Laden and his minions to exult

Those who imagine that trying them as ordinary criminals will cut all terrorists down to size and elevate America in the eyes of the world are after the wrong prize.

UN at the table

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