And Justice For All: Why The KSM Trial Isn’t Unprecedented (UPDATED)

Zacharias Moussaoui is a die-hard, well-trained Al-Qaeda militant. He was slated to be the 20th 9/11 hijacker and was only prevented from taking part in the mass murder of 3,000 innocent people by a chance arrest on immigration charges in August, 2001.

In the wake of 9/11, Moussaoui was charged, tried, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by a federal court. Today–and for the rest of his life–Moussaoui resides in the supermax prison facility in Florence, Colorado.

The truth is, a lot of terrorists–domestic and international–have been successfully tried in the United States.  Currently, 355 terrorists reside within the American prison system.

And yet, neither Moussaoui’s trial nor any of the other terror trials caused very much controversy, certainly not as much as the impending trial of 9/11 pl0tter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The only major difference between the two trials appears to be who was inhabiting the White House at the time.

The Bush administration put one dangerous 9/11 plotter on trial and caused nearly no outcry from the right; the Obama administration puts another dangerous 9/11 plotter on trial and the right is causing an uproar.

Sadly, I guess even terrorism isn’t off-limits when there are political points to be scored.

But the Moussaoui trial taught us that a dangerous Al-Qaeda terrorist and 9/11 plotter can successfully be put on trial. As the AP wrote:

Zacarias Moussaoui was a clown who could not keep his mouth shut, according to his old al-Qaida boss, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But Moussaoui was surprisingly tame when tried for the 9/11 attacks – never turning the courtroom into the circus of anti-U.S. tirades that some fear Mohammed will create at his trial in New York.


Skeptics who feared prosecutors would be hamstrung by how much evidence was secret were stunned at the enormous amount of classified data that was scrubbed, under pressure from the judge, into a public version acceptable to both sides.


No one was more surprised than Moussaoui himself: At the end he concluded an al-Qaida member like him could get a fair trial in a U.S. court.

“I had thought that I would be sentenced to death based on the emotions and anger toward me for the deaths on Sept. 11,” Moussaoui said in an appeal deposition taken after he was sentenced to life in prison. “(B)ut after reviewing the jury verdict and reading how the jurors set aside their emotions and disgust for me and focused on the law and the evidence … I now see that it is possible that I can receive a fair trial.

All that suggests the dire predictions of critics and confident assertions of proponents should be viewed skeptically as prosecutors prepare to put Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and four of his alleged henchmen on trial in a civilian federal court.


U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, who presided over Moussaoui’s trial – the first in this country over 9/11 – believes it proved federal courts can handle terror cases: “I’ve reached the conclusion that the system does work,” she said in 2008.


During the long run-up to trial, Moussaoui’s abusive tirades in handwritten motions and outbursts in hearings created concerns the jury trial would devolve into chaos. Brinkema threatened to lock him in a separate room watching by video if he tried that.

Mindful of that threat, Moussaoui sat quietly at his separate table flanked by deputy marshals. On the few occasions he was called upon to speak, Brinkema kept him tightly on topic.

His theatrics were confined to one-liners – like “Victory for Moussaoui! God curse you all!” – that he tossed off to spectators as he left the courtroom after the jury departed for lunch or the day.


One of Moussaoui’s lawyers, Edward MacMahon, isn’t worried about Mohammed’s behavior in court. “Federal judges deal all the time with defendants who try to disrupt cases,” he said.

MacMahon, himself the target of some of Moussaoui’s epithets, said he thought the trial “was a very dignified process.”

Lead prosecutor Rob Spencer, now with Lockheed Martin Corp., said the Moussaoui trial allowed the public to see that Moussaoui took pride in the terror created by the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

“A valuable part of the Moussaoui trial was that we got an unvarnished, public view of this guy … of what we’re up against” in dealing with al-Qaida terrorists, Spencer said.

[Emphasis mine]

The trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is not at all unprecedented; the right’s fauxtrage here is nothing more than a shallow attempt to score political points. Desperate to attack the Obama administration and to reclaim their tattered national security credentials, conservatives are bending themselves into pretzels to condemn what is, thanks to the Bush administration, an entirely precedented event.

And despite the right’s fearmongering, New Yorkers–the very people conservatives say will be put in the most danger here–have no problem with it:

45% of residents think it’s a good idea to have the trial in New York City while 41% believe it’s a bad one.  14% just aren’t sure.


Most New York City residents — 67% — are confident law enforcement officials will be able to handle the potential security risks associated with such a high profile trial in Manhattan.  22% don’t have as much faith.  This is the proportion of residents who believe New York City is not well equipped to handle the situation.  11% are unsure.

When it comes to their personal safety, a majority — 52% — of New York City residents don’t think it will impact their own security.  34% think the trial will compromise their personal safety and put them in greater danger, and 8% report it will put them in less danger.  6% are unsure.

[Emphasis mine]

New Yorker’s aren’t afraid–they know that men like Moussaoui and Mohammad must be brought to justice.

The right’s fearmongering isn’t surprising–they’ve been fearmongering about terrorism since 9/11–but it is sad and shameful.  The fact that conservatives would employ such an egregious double standard  to attack the Obama administration and drum up fear of terrorism is reprehensible.

UPDATE: Speaking of reprehensible fearmongering:

Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) went on the House floor last night and personally went after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for supporting having the 9/11 trial in Manhattan. “I saw the Mayor of New York said today, ‘We’re tough. We can do it,'” said Shadegg. “Well, Mayor, how are you going to feel when it’s your daughter that’s kidnapped at school by a terrorist? How are you going to feel when it’s some clerk — some innocent clerk of the court — whose daughter or son is kidnapped? Or the jailer’s little brother or little sister? This is political correctness run amok.”

[Emphasis mine]

“Political correctness run amok?” How does this have anything to do with political correctness? I thought it was about the constitution–you know, that thing Rep. Shadegg swore to uphold and defend when he took office.

More to the point, what is Shaddeg saying? That we shouldn’t do something if it’ll make terrorists want to attack us? Isn’t giving the terrorists what they want so they won’t attack us the very definition of surrendering? If terrorists can get us to do something by threatening us then haven’t they won?

I figured the GOP had more of a spine than that, but apparently I was wrong. I wonder, does Rep. Shadegg thinks we should start consulting Al-Qaeda on all our major decisions in fighting terrorism? Or is he willing to admit that he’s just completely full of it?


One comment

  1. Ian · November 18, 2009

    I couldn’t agree more. If McCain were in the White House, the GOP would be hailing this trial as a vindication of our Constitution.

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