Rule of law rules

The recent decision by the Obama administration to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and four other alleged terrorists in New York City, must be lauded as a step in the right direction.

That’s because the response to those terrorist attacks—to declare “war on terrorism”—was misguided.

Terrorism is the act of thugs. Like the small-time hood who extorts “protection” from local shopkeepers, the criminal group Al Qaeda has been attempting to extort changes in U.S. policy—and the policy of other sovereign nations—by committing criminal acts. Groups like Al Qaeda (and, for that matter, the rest of the terrorist brigades, named and unnamed) are no better and no different than any other criminal shakedown artists, and they ought to be treated accordingly.

That means bringing them to justice. And, unless they secure a change of venue, they should be brought to justice in the same jurisdiction where the crime was committed.

It’s a basic principle of the rule of law. In order to keep order and build faith in the justice system, we need to keep it public and as local as possible.

There were a number of mistakes made in the pursuit of the criminals behind the 9/11 attacks, but among the more glaring was the politically motivated decision by the Bush administration to treat Al Qaeda as if it were a sovereign nation rather than a gang of thugs. Nations declare war on other nations; to raise terrorists to the level of sovereign nations may seem like a mere question of semantics, but in fact such a decision gives recognition and stature to their organization and, by extension, to their acts of terrorism.

Of course, the route to justice has been severely hindered by the fact that Mohammed and his cronies can now point to the injustices perpetrated against them. Yes, we’re talking about the extended detention and interrogations, including torture, that these prisoners were put through at the U.S. facility in Guantánamo Bay.

Even the worst criminal has certain guarantees under our system of justice, and one of them is that they won’t be tortured. It is not legal to “waterboard” suspected murderers in the United States, and that’s true even if we suspect that they might have information about other planned murders. However tempting it might have been, no one tied Ted Bundy to a board and poured water over his face until he feared he was drowning in order to obtain more information from him.

By fudging the line between criminal acts and acts of war, we’ve not only added legitimacy to these thugs’ claims, we’ve made our own system of constitutional guarantees and protections seem as flimsy as the paper it’s written on, and that’s just wrong.

What have we got that’s worth defending, if not our ideals?

So give these alleged terrorists—criminals, not warriors—their day in court. If they really hate us for our freedoms, the best and finest comeuppance is to have those very freedoms extended to them. Now is the worst possible time to suspend our justice system. Doing so means, quite simply, that we’ve become what we hate.