Last week, the “underwear bomber,” also known not nearly so well by the name Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, pleaded guilty to eight charges in a Detroit courtroom. Then, without warning, terrorists burst into the courtroom and blew up the entire building. Congress banded together, speaking in one voice, and passed a bill that required terrorism suspects to be tried in off-shore military tribunals.
Okay, so it’s pretty clear by now that I made that story up. Obviously Congress would never band together for anything.
It’s true, though, that Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty. And it’s true that he was in a civilian courtroom. And that’s the point. For ten years, we’ve been told that trying terrorism suspects in a public, civilian court replete with due process would result in terrorist attacks, assassinations, explosions, and general mayhem. And every time the civilian trials have actually happened, nothing awful has happened. Courthouses were not fire-bombed, jurists were not assassinated. Attorneys addressed jurors, there were hearsay objections, and life went on.
In 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed by a group of terrorists led by Omar Abdel-Rahman. He and three other accomplices were indicted by civilian prosecutors, accused of breaking publicly-accessible (not secret) laws, tried in open court inside the United States, under the guidelines of the Constitution and the rules of U.S. criminal procedure, and punished with sentences in U.S. civilian prisons. After 1993, the nation was not less safe because Abdel-Rahman and his accomplices were being imprisoned inside the United States. Abdel-Rahman is housed at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh and his accomplice Terry Nichols – members of a racist Christian fundamentalist terrorist group – blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Nichols and McVeigh were indicted, again by civilian prosecutors, accused of breaking publicly-accessible (that is, not secret) laws, tried in open court, and sentenced to U.S. civilian prisons. McVeigh was given the death penalty. The nation is not less safe because Terry Nichols is housed inside the same Supermax prison as Abdel-Raman.
I think you get the point. Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber; Wadih el-Hage, accused of involvement in the 1998 al-Qaeda U.S. embassy bombings; Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber”; Jose Padilla, the “dirty bomber.” All of these people were tried in a civilian court and now serve hefty sentences in ridiculously secure prisons.
After stripping out all the hyperbole, terrorism is a crime just like any other crime. It’s usually committed by civilians. It’s perpetrated upon civilians. Al-Qaeda has more in common with the Chicago South Side Gang of 1929 than it does anything else.
Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty to setting his pants on fire in order to kill civilians. Tried (sort of; he pleaded guilty after a few days of trial), and convicted. No problem. And he’s one of many. There is no need to use extrajudicial tactics in the “war” on terror.