Monday, February 13


The Bush administration and its Department of Justice are desperate to catch and convict somebody, ANYBODY for terrorist activity to distract the American voter from the fact that Bush has failed to make good on his boast to catch Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda members responsible for 9/11. Just as the invasion of Iraq was a misfire in the "war on terror" (the old joke, "the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, so let's invade Switzerland" comes to mind), show trials for low-level thugs are supposed to convince us that our Grand Old Papa, Dubya, has strapped on his six-shooters and is gunning for the bad guys to protect all us chil'ren. It's all theater with Rove and his minions, it's script and production values -- they have no real talent for, or indeed interest in, governing, policy or justice. It reminds me of the bad old days when ad agency hacks like H.R. Haldeman, Ron Ziegler, Dwight Chapin and others I can't remember had the run of the Nixon White House. Notice to America: when a politician has as his top advisers masters of public relations instead of subject matter experts, run the other way as fast as you can.

But I digress.

Dahlia Lathwick points out that the Bush administration has learned nothing about "overbilling a prisoner's capture from the embarrassment over [Hamdi's] detention," about "distorting the evidence from the embarrassement over Jose Padilla's detention," about "overzealous prosecution from the...Detroit 'sleeper cell' trial."

If Moussaoui, Padilla, Hamdi, and the whole Detroit sleeper cell really are ranking senior members of al-Qaida, I'm for trying them by closed military commission. But if they are merely what they appear to be—low-level terror thugs willing to die for Osama Bin Laden—they should be tried as such. Instead of puffing up the evidence to support equally puffed-up charges, prosecutors could charge them with precisely the crimes they've committed: as low-level foot soldiers in the war on terror.

Consider the benefits of trying Moussaoui as a mere terrorist, rather than as a perpetrator of 9/11: For one thing, his trial would appear fair, not just to the defendant, who might actually recognize himself in the indictment, but to the world, who would see that, when the charges actually correspond to the crime, the American court system works quite well. Consider, also, the message it would send to other lowly foot soldiers in al-Qaida (who might also recognize themselves in the indictment). "We don't just go after the ringleaders. We go after, and get, everyone, including the bumbling bottom feeders." That might persuade some sleepers to stay asleep.

It's tempting to argue that the Western justice system just doesn't work when it comes to catching terrorists; that we should just, I suppose, round 'em up and shoot 'em instead. But let's give open court the old college try first. Let's go in and try to prove what we know to be true, instead of what we merely wish we could avenge.

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