When an angry mob decides that a man is guilty of a crime and executes their own form of justice in place of due process, we call it a lynching. We flatter ourselves that such things do not happen in our civilized society. Yet if an accused terrorist is given the benefit of due process, and if his jury does not find him guilty on every charge that the angry mob demands, then they clamor to throw out due process.
Earlier this week, a civilian jury found Ahmed Ghailani innocent of all but 1 of more than 280 charges against him in the bombing of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The future House Speaker, John Boehner, reacted to this verdict by declaring “the decision by this administration to try terrorists in civilian court was the wrong one from day one” because “terrorists should be tried in military, not civilian, courts.” So if Rep. Boehner can label you as a terrorist, then he wants to strip you of your right to a trial in a civilian court.
The incoming Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith, complained that the exclusion of a key witness from the trial demonstrated that foreign terrorists cannot “be adequately tried in civilian courts.” He griped, “The judge in this case, applying constitutional and legal standards to which all U.S. citizens are entitled, threw out important evidence.”
Civilian courts are messy. Justice is decided by a jury of “peers.” They have a nasty habit of insisting that evidence obtained through coercion is not reliable. One could argue that accused foreign terrorists would have a hard time getting a fair trial because they’re being judged by U.S. citizens, but few are worried about the rights of this accused man. We’ve apparently decided that the principles of our Constitution aren’t really universal truths; we don’t need to be bothered with them if we suspect the accused of being a “terrorist.”
Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra is the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. He says that this verdict confirms that the decision to try Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts “was a mistake and will not work.” Apparently for Rep. Hoekstra a trial that “works” is one that returns a verdict he wants. Sen. Lindsey Graham said “I’m going to have my hands full holding back” some of his fellow Republicans who don’t want to try terrorist suspects tried in civilian courts.
These feelings are not the exclusive domain of Republicans. Democratic Sen. Jim Webb said the verdict “affirms what I and others have said from the beginning: those charged with crimes of war and those who have been determined to be dangerous law-of-war detainees do not belong in our courts, our prisons, or our country.” Notice how subtly this works. Once we declare a “war” on terror, it allows us to sidestep our justice system whenever terrorism is involved. Terrorism becomes a crime of war. Inconveniently, this same logic finds that a drug sale is also a crime of war since we’ve also declared a “war” on drugs. And what about the war on poverty we declared in 1964? Should legislators who insist on tax breaks for the wealthy while denying unemployment benefits to the poor be prosecuted for war crimes?
There are two thing I know that all of these men have in common. First, not one of them sat in the courtroom to hear and weigh the evidence like each one of the members of the jury. Yet for the sake appeasing an angry mob, they presume that they know better than the jury the guilt or innocence of this man.
Second, each one of them are “bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this constitution.” Yet for the sake of appealing to an angry mob who have demonstrated their political power, they ignore their pledge without a second thought. I wonder what it means to support our constitution if it does not mean to abide by our system of justice. What type of leadership can we expect from people who are eager to sidestep due process in order to guarantee that a court decides in a particular way?
The Washington Post quotes an “official directly involved in Guantanamo issues” as saying “There’s no political will for” civilian trials. Well goodness gracious if there’s insufficient political will for upholding the constitution, then obviously we can just ignore the thing. After all if we defy the angry mob too often, then they might turn on us.