Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What The GITMO Debate Should Look Like

Friday the 13th has a reputation for being the scariest of day-of-the-week/date combinations. The Obama administration selected last Friday (the 13th of November) to announce its intention to bring 5 alleged terrorists who planned 9/11 to trial in federal court 'at the scene of the crime' in NYC. If you've seen any Republican talking heads over the past few days, or gone through the Fox News haunted house, you have heard how truly scary they think you should think this is.

There was another related event on Friday that has received much less attention. The New York Times ran an installment of its series 'Room for Debate' on the topic of the best way to try terrorists. The debate is between Jim Benjamin, a former federal prosecutor who thinks our courts are up to the task of trying alleged terrorists and Glenn Sulmasy, an national security expert, who believes alleged terrorists should not be given the same constitutional protections as American citizens and advocates creating a new 'national security court'.

Though they concern the same topic, what to do with prisoners in GITMO, the difference in these two Friday the 13th conversations is remarkable. One of them is meant to stoke fears and prevent a rational examination of facts, and the other is an intelligent and well-reasoned debate on a complex legal issue.

It is a great example of two things: #1 what a good, rational debate on this issue looks like. You won't find fear-mongering here, but you will find a counter-proposal that doesn't offend rational thinking. To wit - this is Glenn Sulmsay, the national security expert:
The Qaeda fighter is a hybrid — a mix of international criminal and warrior. The conflict we are engaging in is a hybrid — a mix of law enforcement and warfare. Since we are fighting hybrid warriors in a hybrid war, it seems logical that policy makers strongly consider the creation of a hybrid court: a national security court.
#2, this argument (and its crazier cousins) is built upon the mistaken presumption that if you grant alleged terrorists the same constitutional protections enjoyed by citizens of the USofA, they will be acquitted and go on to commit terrorist acts. It sounds reasonable enough, but there is 20 years worth of evidence to the contrary.

In the words of Jim Benjamin, the experienced former federal prosector, and co-author of the Human Rights First 'In Pursuit of Justice' Reports:
In the years since 9/11 the Justice Department has brought 119 federal court terrorism cases against 289 defendants, with a conviction rate of 91.1 percent. Although it would be naive to suggest that the 9/11 prosecutions will be simple or straightforward, there is good reason to believe that dedicated federal judges, working with prosecutors and defense counsels, can address and overcome the challenges that these prosecutions are certain to present.
Here is the full debate and it is well worth a read.

My take is that we have held people at GITMO for the better part of a decade, denying them the rights that a civil society extends to all people regardless of their crime. To paraphrase one of my favorite U2 songs, we have become a monster so the monster would not break us.

But we have never needed to. The record is clear that our courts are capable of handling international criminals like terrorists. GITMO, like Abu Ghraib before it (and Bagram to come after), is of no value to American national security, and serves a recruiting tool for the terrorists we seek to defeat.

If you agree with me, join the courageous folks at Human Rights First who are working to close GITMO, and finally put the legal, human rights, morass that the Bush Administration began, behind us. Sign the petition, and join them on Facebook. If you want to do something more, join their 'task force' and help them organize the campaign.

It is time for America to wake up and realize that the rights we grant ourselves are the legal embodiment of our aspiration for all people. Adhering to our values, particularly in the face of a new national security threat, will undercut the terrorist cause, and position the United States as the strong moral leader we strive to be.

Whatever your opinion, on how we should bring alleged terrorists to justice, I hope we can all see fear mongering for what it is, and keep this debate to the critical question that faces our nation. The world is watching.

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