Terrorism Trials

No Justice in Secrecy



This week, President Bush issued an executive order authorizing the convocation of special military tribunals to try foreigners accused of planning or assisting the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Bush administration chooses which individuals to try; under the organization of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the tribunal operates under a jury made up of members of the armed forces. These proceedings are not open to the press or the public.

Vice President Dick Cheney said because the accused are not American citizens, they are not entitled to Constitutional protection. Attorney General John Ashcroft reiterated that acts of war in a time of national emergency demand exceptional treatment. While the validity of Ashcroft's assertion is undeniable, this does not mean the subversion of our courts of law under Bush's amateur, Texan-cowboy style of justice. The American judicial system deserves far more respect.

Bush's plan is so broad in its scope of power, and so removed from any civilian influence, it smells of an old-style, totalitarian court of law. The potential for executive abuse is far too easy. Criticism for the Justice Department's detention of over 1,000 Arab and Muslim terrorist suspects reveals the dangers emergency powers create, and Ashcroft is already entertaining the possibility of trying some in military courts.

The issue is not that top terrorist masterminds shouldn't receive the harsh punishments they deserve. Osama bin Laden and his top-level al Qaeda cronies will most likely be sentenced to execution by any court of law, civilian or military. But the executive order risks trying law-abiding Arabs and Muslims with only circumstantial connections to the attacks. The fact that they are foreigners and not afforded Constitutional protections does not justify treating them unjustly.

The trials are an opportunity to show the world the way our country enacts justice against anyone who attacks it. Unfortunately, the world won't be able to watch the trials since they are closed to the general public. Although the administration wants to protect its witnesses and intelligence operations, completely cutting off the proceedings only increases opportunities for abuse. No one except the military, a group with already powerful biases, can hold them accountable.

Confining proceedings strictly in the secret sphere of military control ignores the fact that the terrorist attacks were ultimately against American civilians. The military has the right to conduct its own trial on the Pentagon attack, but not on the World Trade Center. Anyone who attacks the people of this country should expect just retribution, not punishment in Bush's ad-hoc shell of a court system.

The administration should invite its own citizens back into the system again by opting a different plan, such as allowing Congress to organize a special court to try the terrorists. That way, terrorists can be punished our way under our system by the American people. No attack should force us to reject our principles.