Trial and Terror

Bill Murchison
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Posted: Feb 12, 2008 12:00 AM
Trial and Terror

Americans will be learning a lot about themselves as six Islamist terror "suspects" (I guess we have to say, technically) held at Guantanamo Bay finally face trial on murder and war crimes charges connected with 9/11.

A country in which women fall in love with convicted murderers, one largely alienated from the president who brought down Saddam Hussein, may have some surprises in store for foreigners who think the Yanks mean to hang, draw and quarter these lambs.

Prosecutors at the military trials of the six will seek the death penalty in each case. That's as you might suspect, given that the death toll the six are accused of engineering totaled nearly 3,000.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- do you often see, by the way, more baleful mugs than his, even if physiognomy signifies neither guilt nor innocence? Khalid, I say, supposedly has confessed to numerous anti-U.S. terror activities, with 9/11 the capstone atop the granite shaft. Ramzi bin al-Shibh is said to have signed up for the hijackings, only to fail in his attempt to procure a U.S. visa. He carried out, supposedly, other assignments for the brothers.

What mood the country, and the world, will be in to hear the charges is something we may not know for a while. There's an abstract quality to the setting in which the proceedings will be held. So many accusations about American policy and behavior in the Iraq War have for so long filled the air that portraying the United States as innocent victim of unprovoked attack may be less easy than it seemed back when Khalid & Co. were first hauled in and the snaring of bin Laden himself seemed imminent -- or anyway not out of the question.

The corrosive power of Western anti-Westernism has been a work for a long time, dulling the thirst for justice, posing a false equivalence between victims here and victims elsewhere in the twilight war on terror. "Can't we all just get along?" is the refrain of many, many Americans and, especially, Europeans.

The ponderousness of the Bush administration in not managing sooner to bring the captives to justice has its match in the carping of politicians and Op-ed experts about waterboarding, "torture" and conditions at Guantanamo, as well as the precariousness of efforts to assure dear Khalid and the rest fair trials. None of which is beneath notice. None of which deserves centrality in considering how -- and whether, of course -- we're to punish the alleged perpetrators of the worst act of barbarity ever carried out on American soil.

How do we do this thing and keep the Iraq War out of it? And George W. Bush? And Don Rumsfeld? And Condi Rice? It's certainly not doable in any complete sense. Even insulated from the civilian court system, the military tribunal charged with trying the six can't consider itself as operating on the slopes of Olympus, where never is seen a protest march or an incendiary posting on a leftwing blog. Certainly not with a presidential campaign underway.

And yet the thing has to be done -- even if done poorly (though clearly that's not what we want). Too many people may be watching, yes -- among them the terrorist brethren abroad, looking for every sign of moral slippage or confusion on America's part. And planning how to exploit that slippage, that confusion.

A nation unwilling -- or afraid? -- to punish its enemies firmly and resolutely, and in accordance with their deserts, is a nation with problems that need defining: say, in a presidential election.

Listening to the candidates, as the proceedings go forth, could be instructive. I think we all know that John McCain -- despite past riffs on waterboarding -- isn't going to nudge the electorate toward guilt for their country's attempt to bring national enemies to justice. Hillary Clinton? Barack Obama? We'll be listening carefully. And what about death-penalty foes who suppose you can murder 3,000 people and still qualify for lifetime room and board at state expense?

Yes, we'll be learning a lot about ourselves. Possibly too much.