NEW YORK – This week, in the bars, restaurants and subways of the city that never sleeps, one topic dominated all others. Not Sarah Palin, Afghanistan, or health-care reform. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
It all started when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department was bringing KSM, self-declared mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, from Guantanamo Bay prison to lower Manhattan – to be tried along with four co-conspirators in federal civilian court. To which right-wingers around the rest of the country reacted with horror, while New Yorkers I talked to responded with a mix of indifference and pride.
Big Apple Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the self-declared spokesman for all things post-9/11, leads the opposition to a New York trial, accusing President Obama of "giving an unfair advantage to the terrorists." Giuliani asserts: "We generally don't bring people back to the scene of the crime for justice."
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Oh, really? Perhaps Giuliani forgot that the first trial of a foreign terrorist, the so-called "Blind Sheik," Omar Abdel-Rahman, took place, without incident, in the very same lower Manhattan federal courthouse. For his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Rahman was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1996 – while Giuliani was still mayor! At the time, Giuliani hailed the verdict as demonstrating "that New Yorkers won't meet violence with violence, but with a far greater weapon – the law."
Apparently, the mayor also forgot praising the Bush Justice Department that same year for bringing Zacarias Moussaoui to trial in a federal civilian court in Alexandria, Va., where he was also found guilty and sent to rot in prison for life. In other words, for Giuliani and other brainwashed Republicans, it was OK for George Bush to try terrorists on U.S. soil, but not OK for Barack Obama.
Perhaps the most curious objection came from Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who's worried that history might repeat itself. "I think a lot of Americans thought O.J. Simpson ought to have been convicted of murder," warned Grassley, "rather than being in jail for what he's in jail for now."
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How idiotic. Of course O.J. was guilty and should never have been let off. But by Grassley's logic, we might as well just junk the courts altogether because, under our legal system, there's always a chance of acquittal. God Bless America! The real question is: Do you believe in the Constitution or not? If so, even Khalid Sheikh Mohammed deserves the right to stand up in court and defend himself.
Besides, in the real world, there's zero chance that KSM will ever walk free. Since Sept. 11, 195 terrorists have been tried in American courts. All were found guilty. Holder would not be bringing Mohammed to trial unless he had an airtight case against him – even without any evidence that might have been gained by illegal waterboarding. And, even were KSM found not guilty, under the provisions of the Patriot Act, the military could still hold him indefinitely as an "international terrorist."
Unfortunately, what gets lost in all the political debate is the most important point of all: Obama's bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to federal court for the same two reasons Bush did so with Zacarias Moussaoui. They are not members of any army. They are international terrorists, who committed what's been called "the crime of the century." They don't belong in, or deserve, the honor of a military tribunal. And since it may be years before new rules for military tribunals are established, trial in a federal court is the fastest and surest way to bring terrorists to justice.
Unlike the rest of the country, most New Yorkers understand reality. They're not afraid of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They trust law enforcement to keep them safe. They trust the courts to do their job. They like bringing KSM back to the scene of the crime to remind people of the evil done. And they're happy that, with proceedings in Manhattan, families of the victims of Sept. 11 will have easier access to the trial.
New Yorkers aren't worried the terrorist might walk out of the courthouse, either. As one friend told me, "Just put out the word that he's being let loose in lower Manhattan. I'd go down there myself and join the mob." KSM wouldn't last five minutes.