“Brace yourselves, because the war with Muslims has just begun. Consider me only a first droplet of the flood that will follow me.”
So said Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, after he was convicted and sentenced to multiple life sentences for his failed attempt at murdering scores of innocents by car bomb.
And then, that day, October 5, he was taken to prison.
It is important to note the kind of person Shahzad is. Here we had a determined, if not highly successful, terrorist, someone who traveled across the world to train with other terrorists in South Asia. This is a fanatic who actually believes, in a way no different from Osama bin Laden or others of that ilk, that by killing innocent Americans he was doing the work of a god. And he acted on that belief.
In short, Shahzad is one of those who have haunted the dreams of people – Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, non-believers alike – all over the world, from New York to London to Mumbai to Bali, since 9/11.
But after his failed attempt at carnage, he was quickly tracked down, arrested (not tortured), brought to trial and, as mentioned above, jailed. Score one for the good guys.
That phrase, “good guys,” has a double meaning. It could be taken as “those who do not want innocent people to die.” At the same time, it can mean “people who fight for civil liberties and the Constitution.”
According to those who disagree with the second set of good guys, Shahzad’s trial should have been a failure: only military tribunals, they say, can really deal with insane terrorists. Due process, rights to lawyers – all that stuff will simply strengthen the terrorists and rob the government of crucial “tools” it needs to fight terror. Further, if people like Shahzad are able to speak at a public trial, the argument goes, they will convert others to some terroristic pseudo-Islam.
Strangely, his fanatical tirade, though reported all over the media, have not inspired a stream or even a trickle of new holy warriors. And, without bending the Constitution or setting precedents that erode our own civil rights, the threat posed by Shahzad was neutralized forever.
Now there’s the trial of accused terrorist Ahmed Ghailani, set to begin next week. The accused is the first of those held in Guantanamo to be tried in a U.S. civilian court, and, because he is in such a court, he has basic Constitutional protections.
Much has been made of Judge Lewis Kaplan’s decision to grant a motion by the defense barring the government’s star witness from testifying. But this was for good reason: Hussein Abede, the witness, made incriminating statements against Ghailani while he was subject to a CIA “rendition” in another country where he was likely tortured.
Those who would have suggested that Shahzad shouldn’t be tried in a civilian court are now clawing over each other to argue that the judge’s decision “proves” that the trial should have been held in a military tribunal, in which the tortured witness would have been allowed to testify.
But this is nonsense. If we find out that the key witness against a rapist mass murderer was tortured in the police station, the case is thrown out of court. Why should there be a different standard – a standard that would jeopardize the democratic foundations of our legal system – for a different crime? The witness tortured in the police precinct is no less likely to be giving good information to the prosecution than one who was tortured in another country. The logic is the same. If we can’t prove someone committed a crime without the help of someone who was tortured into saying whatever we want them to say, it becomes hard to justify imprisoning them. And if they did commit the crime we should be able to prove it.
As Kaplan said, “The Constitution is the rock upon which our nation rests, and it must be followed not only when it is convenient. To do less would diminish us and undermine the foundation upon which we stand.”
If someone, whether a U.S. citizen or not, is actually guilty of terrorism, we should have faith in our justice system – and the civil liberties that it is supposed to uphold – to convict them. And we should stand with those, like the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder, who favor civilian trials, the kind that fit with hard-won American traditions.