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New York's Tough Enough for Terrorist Trials

New York's Tough Enough for Terrorist Trials


by Michael Winship,
t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed

If you want to royally tick off New Yorkers, try telling us what to do.

That's probably why the police stopped trying to enforce the jaywalking laws here years ago (as opposed to Washington, D.C., where I once got one too many tickets and was sent to pedestrian school).

And that's why in the weeks after 9/11, my favorite sign was the one that appeared in the windows of Italian-American neighborhoods near where I live downtown. In bright red, white and blue, it read: "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. You got a problem with that?"

So imagine how pleased many of us were when told by conservatives -- most of them from out-of-town -- that we should be very afraid that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some of his al-Qaeda henchmen will be put on trial here in New York City, just blocks from the scene of their horrific crime, the World Trade Center.

My own unscientific survey indicates that most of us who live not far from Ground Zero and who were here on 9/11 see it as an appropriate and just venue and aren't afraid that the trial will result in terrorist retribution. And if for some reason it should, we will stand up in righteous, rational indignation, the way we New Yorkers do on an almost daily basis, whether the source of vexation is slight or extreme.

I immediately thought of the moment in Casablanca, when the supercilious Nazi, Major Strasser, asks Humphrey Bogart if he's one of those who can't imagine Germans occupying New York. Bogart replies, "There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

The response of Arizona Republican Congressman John Shadegg was especially offensive. After noting that Mayor Mike Bloomberg had said that New Yorkers are tough and could handle the trial and its attendant commotion, Rep. Shadegg declared on the floor of the House, "Well, Mayor, how are you going to feel when it's your daughter that's kidnapped at school by a terrorist? How are you going to feel when it's some clerk -- some innocent clerk of the court -- whose daughter or son is kidnapped? Or the judges wife? Or the jailer's little brother or little sister?"

Rep. Shadegg wound up apologizing, although he insisted the point survived his insensitivity -- "I think it is important to note that this decision involves potential risk to innocent people," he said. But even Rupert Murdoch's right wing New York Post took offense, describing Shadegg's remarks as "the outrageously shameless use of Bloomberg's children as debating points."

Two local politicians who should know better did speak out in opposition to a federal trial here in Manhattan, but to a large degree their motives can be perceived as mercenary. Both men are or may be running for statewide office, and polling outside the city indicates that when it comes to a civilian trial, a sizable majority has bought into the fearmongering.

Former Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who became such a hero in New York as he walked the rubble-strewn streets on 9/11, and who has been bandied about the media as a potential candidate for governor or the US Senate, fell into conservative lockstep and told CBS News, "There is no reason to try them in a civilian court. Others are going to be tried in the military tribunal. And the reality is we've never done this before. And this is something that was pushed very, very hard by the left wing for President Obama to do."

Which is odd, because back in 2006, when a civilian jury sentenced 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui to life without parole, Giuliani told Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball" that while he would have preferred the death penalty, the verdict "does show that we have a legal system, that we follow it, that we respect it. And it is exactly what is missing in the parts of the world or a lot of the parts of the world that are breeding terrorism... it does say something pretty remarkable about us, doesn't it?"

What's more, when blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahmanm, the architect of the first Trade Center bombing in 1993, was convicted in New York federal court, Giuliani said, "It does demonstrate that we can give people a fair trial, that we are exactly what we say we are. We are a nation of law... I think he's going to be a symbol of American justice."

More baffling was New York's Democratic Governor David Paterson, who told The New York Times, "This is not a decision I would have made... We still have been unable to rebuild that site, and having those terrorists tried so close to the attack is going to be an encumbrance on all New Yorkers." But the governor's popularity is so low and election chances next year so slim he is desperate for the slightest grit of traction. A Siena College poll this week had 69% saying they would vote for someone else. At this point, he probably would allow himself to be pulled between two farm tractors if he thought it might help him carry upstate.

Paterson’s position also seemed to puzzle US Attorney General Eric Holder -- a New Yorker, by the way -- who last week announced the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his fellow conspirator here in the city. When told of Paterson's comments, he said to the New York Daily News, "It's a little inconsistent with what he told me last week."

Attorney General Holder, in this instance at least, has been the consistent one, unwavering over the rightness of his decision while admitting that it was a "tough call, and reasonable people can disagree with my conclusion."

On Wednesday he handled four hours of often harshly critical questioning from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and then met with families of 9/11 victims. He countered the opposition's main objections. "We know that we can prosecute terrorists in our federal courts safely and securely because we have been doing it for years," Holder said, and the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA) "establishes strict rules for the use of classified information at trial."

As for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- often identified simply as KSM -- and his track record of rabid histrionics, Holder said that the terrorist "will have no more of a platform to spew his hateful ideology in federal court than he would have in military commissions...

"Judges in federal court have firm control over the conduct of defendants and other participants in their courtrooms, and when the 9/11 conspirators are brought to trial, I have every confidence that the presiding judge will ensure appropriate decorum. And if KSM makes the same statements he made in his military commission proceedings, I have every confidence the nation and the world will see him for the coward he is. I'm not scared of what KSM will have to say at trial -- and no one else needs to be either."

Which seems right to me and my friends who stood on our neighborhood streets and watched those towers burn and fall. You got a problem with that?

*************

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.

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