But the Nuremburg trials followed the defeat of an enemy. Al-Qaeda remains an active, global threat. Terrorists also understand symbolism. The trial of the century would be both a forum for propaganda and a target for violence. Which is why preparing and defending a site would cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year. If soldiers at Guantanamo are concerned about terrorist reprisal, who would inflict such insecurity on an American city?
Eric Holder would. Testifying before Congress, you'll remember, he dismissed such concerns as cowering. Does he now view New York officials and much of Congress, including prominent Democrats, as cowards? The New York trial, it turns out, was not a careful decision -- the police commissioner of New York City was not even consulted. It was an unthinking endorsement of the criminal justice model of the war on terror. Add to this the unthinking decision to Mirandize the Christmas bomber. The attorney general seems to do a lot of unthinking.
Which leads back to this place. Over the years at Guantanamo both facilities and procedures have been improved -- forced, in part, by a Supreme Court decision. Last May, Obama announced that military tribunals would resume for some detainees, using fairer rules of evidence. Which raises some questions: If tribunals are now considered just for some detainees, why not for the 9/11 conspirators? What great symbolic benefit is gained when some terrorists face tribunals and others do not? Why turn an American city into an armed camp when an armed camp, with facilities for detention, trials and media coverage, already exists at Guantanamo?
This may be the strangest effect of Eric Holder's bungling. He has led Congress and Americans to take a second look at Guantanamo Bay -- and to see, perhaps, the best of flawed options. The facility is still ugly. But ugly things, such as maximum-security prisons, can be necessary. And symbolism, it turns out, can be costly, even dangerous.