The Trial of the Decade, Where to Try Someone this Decade.

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Ahmed Abu Khattala was captured last weekend. He was captured because he is suspected to be one of the masterminds behind the 2012 attack on the American embassy in Benghazi. There is an important word in that last sentence, suspected. Up until last weekend he was a fugitive from the law, but now that he has been captured and will be extradited to the United States, how should he stand trial?

Touching briefly on the capture itself, it seems it went pretty flawlessly. It’s tough to find much wrong with an operation that achieved its goal of capturing someone with zero casualties and no shots fired. [1] If we want to set an example as a standard of justice in the world, no casualties and no shots fired is certainly a good start.

Immediately following the announcement of the capture was the announcement from Attorney General Eric Holder that the suspect will face his multiple federal charges in civilian court. This isn’t to surprising because despite his failure to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, President Obama hasn’t added to its population at all during his administration. There are still those who would like to see Khattala sent there though.

John McCain(R-Ari) asked, “I’d bring him to Guantanamo. Where else can you take him to?” The problem with sending him to Guantanamo is that a conviction becomes unlikely or untimely. Of the 149 current detainees at Guantanamo, only 6 face any formal charges. Of the people who have been convicted after being held at Guantanamo, their convictions have taken over 5.5 times as long as terrorist trials in federal courts.[2] If we want to set an example as a standard of justice in the world, Guantanamo is not the place for Khattala.

The question then becomes what benefits are there for incarcerating anyone there. Lindsey Graham(R-SC) answers that for us by saying, “We should have some quality time with this guy. Weeks and months. Don’t torture him, but have some quality time with him. If they bring him to the United States, they’re going to Mirandize this guy and it would be a mistake for the ages to read this guy his Miranda rights.” This makes me wonder what variety of ‘quality time’ Senator Graham wants that violate Miranda rights but don’t count as torture.

Seriously, if we don’t plan on torturing him(which is good) then every question that will be asked of him over the course of a standard police interrogation will accomplish the same result. He’ll still be asked about accomplices and their whereabouts. He’ll still be asked his role in planning the attacks. It isn’t like Mirandizing Khattala will prevent federal officials from running a normal investigation. I do find it odd when people who so sycophantically hold up the constitution object so strongly to its principles being applied. Khattala isn’t an American citizen, so there is some gray area, but if our way is the best way then it should be black and white. If we want to set an example as a standard of justice in the world, then our rules need to apply universally.

We can see that Guantanamo is unfavorable to an actual conviction, but that doesn’t necessarily mean civilian court is a good place to try a terrorist. I was quite surprised to find out that there have been 523 terrorist related convictions in civilian court since 9/11.[3] There are some iffy definitions in there. It seems odd to lump a woman repeatedly hitting the call button and harassing flight attendants together with Richard Reid the infamous shoe bomber. The lack of a solid definition only goes to show that civilian courts with specific charges are the better places for these individuals.

Zacarias Moussaoui’s case was one of the earliest and most heavily debated cases that was tried in a civilian court. At the start of the trial Moussaoui pleaded guilty despite claiming no connection to the 9/11 terror plot. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He was not sentenced to death. The single strongest argument for trying terrorist suspects in civilian courts comes from Moussaoui’s quote after his sentence was read, “I now see that it is possible that I can receive a fair trial even with Americans as jurors.”[4]

Moussaoui expected a jury of Americans to walk in, sentence him to death, and stop by McDonalds on the way home. When that didn’t happen he actually wanted to start the trial over with a not guilty plea, but you aren’t allowed to change your plea once a sentence is read. If Moussaoui thought that, it’s a pretty good bet other anti-American groups think similarly.

If we want to set an example as a standard of justice in the world, a no shots fired capture followed by a trial in a civilian court does infinitely more to lead the rest of the world than indefinite detention and enhanced interrogation will. We make the world safer not only by putting criminals behind bars but also by convincing other people not to attack us. People find it easy to attack a caricature that lives up to its own stereotype and if we can defy their expectations on this point then it’s a start. Let’s show everyone it is possible to receive a fair trial even with Americans as jurors.

As always, questions, comments, and criticism are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.


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