Crime and punishment


he arrest on Christmas day of a Nigerian man suspected of trying to blow up a commercial airliner en route from Amsterdam to Detroit with nearly 300 people aboard was a stark reminder that the nation can't afford to let down its guard in the struggle against Islamic extremism. The suspect, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly tried to detonate explosives concealed in his underwear shortly before the plane landed, but the device fizzled and started a fire instead, allowing alert fellow passengers to tackle him and douse the flames.

Despite Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's initial gaffe in characterizing the incident as one in which "the system worked" - she later had to clarify that she meant officials had responded appropriately to the threat


it occurred - it appears the government is taking additional steps to beef up airport security and expand the watch list of passengers subject to more intensive screening before being allowed to board international flights bound for the U.S. Though no system is perfect, in hindsight it's clear there were enough red flags around the Abdulmutallab case that he never should have been cleared to enter the country. Whether the government learns its lessons from that failure remains to be seen.

What conservative critics have focused on now, however, is the government's plan to prosecute Mr. Abdulmutallab in federal criminal court. Former Vice President Dick Cheney last week said the Obama administration is "trying to pretend we aren't at war" by choosing to hold the trial in a civilian court. Mr. Cheney and some members of Congress argue that foreign terror suspects like Mr. Abdulmutallab are "enemy combatants" with no right to the legal protections afforded by the Constitution and that they should be tried before military tribunals.


That would be a mistake. Though Mr. Abdulmutallab reportedly has admitted receiving training and equipment from a Yemen-based terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda, the group is more akin to enterprises like the Mafia or the Mexican drug cartels than to the military forces of a sovereign state. It may be more heavily armed and have political rather than economic goals, but fundamentally it is no different from any band of outlaws.

In recent decades American courts have tried - and convicted - thousands of organized crime suspects without resorting to the fiction that the "war on drugs" means that narcotics traffickers and gang members are literally prisoners of war subject to the rules of military justice. Even Timothy McVeigh, who perpetrated the1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was tried in a civilian court. Al-Qaeda consists of a few thousand well-organized, hard-core militants who are committed to anarchy and violence on a global scale. But the criminal justice system has dealt with anarchists and domestic terrorists before, and there's no reason it can't do so again in the future.

Even more important, treating terror suspects as if they were legitimate agents of a state elevates them to a status they do not deserve and should not be permitted to enjoy. The last thing we should want is to give up our own most cherished democratic ideals and values in the name of a war on terror; to do so would only hand the terrorists a moral victory that they could never achieve on the battlefield. Mr. Abdulmutallab's alleged attempt to bring down an airliner packed with innocent civilians epitomizes the overweening ambition and self-aggrandizing motives of our opponents. But when they are finally brought to justice, justice will best be served by treating them as nothing more than common criminals.

Readers respond

By Al-Qaeda standards, this man is an utter failure. The head honchos and troglodytes of this terrorist group will be laughing their heads off that we want to elevate every inept greenhorn of theirs to consummate and seasoned terrorist status with rituals like waterboarding and military trials.