Friday, March 5, 2010

Trial Run

David Frum rightly claims the use of military tribunals to try terrorist suspects is not a perfect idea, but there is not a feasibly better one. I disagree in part. Framing the question is central here: giving high-level terrorist suspects trials in civilian courts casts them as domestic criminals rather than enemy combatants guilty of the murder of thousands. This gives the paranoid right wing fringe ammunition to cast anyone who believes in showcasing the superiority of impartial American justice in the face of religious, fanatical hate as an obvious Stalinist madman bent on the liquidation of American "values" - I wish this were hyperbole.

The civilian trial would have made sense as another step in the reinstatement of the rule of law. The gesture would have been largely symbolic, but a noble gesture all the same. The problem, I figure, with this scenario is that most of the suspects up for trial have been tortured - as was policy - and, therefore, most of the evidence gathered to be used against them - i.e. coerced evidence - is tainted and cannot be used.

The favorable aspect of a trial by military tribunal is that it denies terrorist suspects a public forum to make martyrs of themselves and fulminate against their rhetorical bogeymen. Trying and executing top suspects by military tribunal is not appetizing, but it may keep them away from the publicity they so crave and is so key to their propagandizing. Either way, a trial would be practically meaningless beyond symbolism: no one believes the U.S. might have the wrong players behind 9/11. Whatever happens to the them in the long term will happen, whether it be by civilian trial or military tribunal.

Nevertheless, this is a retreat for the Obama administration. In this case, however, I acknowledge it may be an intelligent political move, since the amount of political capital required to fight this out with the right wing fringe would come at too high a cost with so much of the domestic agenda still to be legislated and implemented. Let the opposition have this one. Allow them to glory in defeating a symbolic move while health care, cap and trade, and, hopefully, a sane and not purely market-driven education reform bill make their way, with some luck, through the Congress.

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