THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Holding Civilian Trials
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Feb 28, 2010
The controversy over the use of civilian courts to try suspected terrorists has intensified over the last few weeks. In our world of polarized politics, basic facts have been turned upside down. Led by the bullying, outlandish claims of former Vice President Dick Cheney, we are told that military tribunals are essential for U.S. security and are the only effective way to deal with terrorists.
Cheney’s claims have received little scrutiny from the mainstream media. Instead, the media has devoted attention to those who agree with him. At the beginning of this week the New York Times ran a long article about Andrew McCarthy, the former prosecutor of one of this country’s biggest terrorism trials: of the group of men led by a blind Egyptian sheik who plotted to blow up the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and other city landmarks. McCarthy got his convictions.
Now, however, McCarthy has joined the chorus of critics of the very kind of trials that made his career. Recently he said, “A war is a war. A war is not a crime, and you don’t bring your enemies to a courthouse.”
This is the real issue behind the opposition to civilian courts. A trial in a civilian court shifts the issue away from Unending War to the recognition that what we label terrorism is a Criminal Act. Criminal Acts are not declarations of war of one nation against another; they are the acts of individuals and small groups. Once we acknowledge this, we open up the intellectual and moral foundations to reveal the grossly criminal activities that our government has been engaged in under its “war on terror.”
Once we acknowledge that bombings, attempted assassinations, killings and destruction of property are crimes, our justifications for the military invasion and occupation of two countries are called into question. Moreover, the inhuman and brutal treatment of individuals, so supported by Dick Cheney, is exposed for just what it is: torture and a war crime.
So the continuing effort to refuse to acknowledge that the bombings, attempted assassinations, killings and destruction of property are crimes is an effort to prevent serious thinking about the criminality of these wars and our continued commitment to them.
It seems that most of the mainstream media would rather fan the fuel of partisan bullying than look at basic facts. While Chaney, McCarthy & Co. all say they are worried about U.S. security, the list of prominent military thinkers supporting civilian trials gets little coverage. These include CIA veteran Philip Giraldi, Admiral Mike Mullen, former Major General Michael Lehnert and seven of the military lawyers who quit in Guantanamo because of the violations of basic decency there.
While McCarthy was calling for military courts and Dick Cheney was singing the praises of waterboarding, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Cheney’s claims had no basis in reality. He was especially upset that Cheney was railing against decisions that had been enacted during the Bush administration. Powell pointed out that Bush had ended waterboarding as an interrogation tool and had shifted to criminal courts to try terror suspects. He said Cheney’s claims of our being less safe are not “borne out by the facts.”
Powell is correct. In the eight years, the Bush administration obtained at least 319 convictions in terrorism or terrorism related cases in the civilian justice system. It obtained convictions in 9 out of 10 cases, with an average sentence of 16 years. Meanwhile just three men were convicted in military commissions. Two of them are now free.
The shift away from a commitment to war begins with reclaiming the principles of law that have long been the cornerstone of democracy. We should not be bullied away from this commitment.