Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mad Hatter Land

I have really mixed emotions on what I normally would have considered an unmixed success of the American system of constitutionally based justice. Of course, normal doesn't seem to exist anymore, so I guess I'll have to get used to the ambiguities and paradoxes of the post-9/11 America. A man was tried for an horrendous crime and was found not-guilty of all but one charge of the more than 280 charges brought against him.

The trial was run with all the rigors the US Constitution requires, including the exclusion of unlawfully obtained evidence. The defendant will serve at least twenty years for the crime he was convicted of. On its face, the story seems to prove that the US can in fact deal with terrorism in a constitutionally approved way. Scratching the surface, however, yields a different picture.

From the New York Times:

Ahmed Ghailani will face between 20 years and life in prison as a result of his conviction on one charge related to the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. But because a jury acquitted him on more than 280 other charges -- including every count of murder -- critics of the Obama administration’s strategy on detainees said the verdict proved that civilian courts could not be trusted to handle the prosecution of Al Qaeda terrorists.

Say, what? Civilian courts can't be trusted? Pretty astounding conclusion to be drawn, yet that's exactly the one being proclaimed by those who wanted revenge, not justice.

Here are a couple of quotes cited in the article which shows the deep divide the nation is facing. First, from the avengers:

"This is a tragic wake-up call to the Obama Administration to immediately abandon its ill-advised plan to try Guantánamo terrorists” in federal civilian courts, said Representative Peter King, Republican of New York. “We must treat them as wartime enemies and try them in military commissions at Guantánamo.”

Next, from those who believe the Constitution isn't just for some of the time:

...Mason Clutter, the counsel of the Rule of Law Program at the Constitution Project, a bipartisan non-profit group, said that Mr. Ghailani will serve a lengthy sentence and will have far fewer arguments to make in appealing his conviction than if he had faced a military trial.

“The system worked here,” she said. “I don’t think we judge success based on the number of convictions that were received. I think we judge success based on fair prosecutions consistent with the Constitution and the rule of law.”

Now, if the story ended with just these two views, I wouldn't have the mixed emotions I referenced at the start of this post. I know which side I'm on, and I know I have to work hard to make certain that side prevailed. But this isn't where the story ends, and at this point I'm not at all sure what can be done, short of another American Revolution.

“This complicates the equation with regard to civilian trials of high-level Al Qaeda detainees that the administration would not release” even if they were found not guilty, said Juan C. Zarate, who served as deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the Bush administration 2005 to 2009 but who has criticized Republicans who called for never trying terrorists in civilian court.

“The paradox with these kinds of cases has always been that if these individuals are found not-guilty, will the American government let them go free, which is the construct of a criminal proceeding? And the answer is no. That is the reality. This case highlights that tension, and will complicate the political debate about how to handle more senior Al Qaeda figures, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”
[Emphasis added]

So this is the America of the 21st Century?

Horrifying, isn't it.

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