Terrorists in civilian courts: C’mon, where’s the hysteria?

     In this courtroom sketch Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, right, testifies at his trial Wednesday, March 19, 2014, in New York, on charges he conspired to kill Americans and aid al-Qaida as a spokesman for the terrorist group. In his surprise testimony, Abu Ghaith recounted the night of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when bin Laden sent a messenger to drive him into a mountainous area for a meeting inside a cave in Afghanistan. (Elizabeth Williams/AP Photo)

    In this courtroom sketch Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, right, testifies at his trial Wednesday, March 19, 2014, in New York, on charges he conspired to kill Americans and aid al-Qaida as a spokesman for the terrorist group. In his surprise testimony, Abu Ghaith recounted the night of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when bin Laden sent a messenger to drive him into a mountainous area for a meeting inside a cave in Afghanistan. (Elizabeth Williams/AP Photo)

    Wow. A senior adviser to Osama bin Laden was convicted yesterday on criminal charges in a U.S. civilian court…and Republicans couldn’t even muster the energy to chew the carpet.

    Is that great or what? Rarely has their silence been so golden. It has been refreshing, these past 24 hours, not to hear their claptrap complaint about how President Obama is “weak” for insisting that terrorist suspects be prosecuted in civilian courts. Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was afforded a lawyer, he got a fair trial in a federal chamber barely a mile from Ground Zero, he was convicted of conspiring to kill Amercans and providing material support to al Qaeda, and now it’s bye bye to the penitentiary. No muss, no fuss.

    The rote Republican rap is that terrorist suspects should not be brought to these shores for civilian prosecution, that instead they should be tried in military tribunals where they’d have fewer rights. Such was the standard outcry a year ago, when Abu Ghaith, a top bin Laden propagandist, was snatched overseas and readied for his civilian trial.  Mitch McConnell, for instance, said that it “makes little sense” to treat Abu Ghaith like a typical lawyered-up criminal. McConnell and his allies said that prosecuting guys like Abu Ghaith in civilian court “makes our nation less safe.”

    But yesterday – with the exception of a statement from Lindsey Graham, who repeated his preference for military tribunals even though he was “pleased” with the civilian verdict – there was barely a Republican peep of protest. What’s up with that?

    I’d like to think it’s because the system worked – again. Just like the system worked in 2010, when failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shazad pleaded guilty in a federal civilian court and got life in prison. Just like the system has worked more than 400 times since 2001. Terrorist suspects, tried and convicted in civilian courts, in accordance with American rule of law and the values we cherish…

    Wait a sec – did I just say that there have been more than 400 civilian convictions since 2001? That’s odd, because Obama has only been president since 2009. So that must mean…well, what do ya know:

    The prosecution of terrorists in civilian courts was all the rage during the reign of George W. Bush.

    The Bush team at the Justice Department, in one of its own budget documents, reported that between 2001 and 2008 it had racked up hundreds of convictions in “terrorism or terrorist-related cases” – roughly 90 percent of all such cases, with an average jail sentence of 16 years. And an independent report, by The Center of Law and Security at NYU Law School, said that the Bush team tallied 370 convictions and sentencings.

    Granted, some of those terrorists were small fish. But the Bush team successfully routed failed shoe bomber Richard Reid through the civilian courts. The Bush team successfully routed 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui through the civilian courts. The Bush team successfully routed  aspiring dirty-bomber Jose Padilla through the civilian courts. (By contrast, the Bush team prosecuted only three terrorists in military court – and two of those defendants later went free.)

    Funny, I don’t ever recall the Republicans assailing President Bush for “weakness.” I guess they must’ve concluded at the time that the criminal justice system was working just fine.

    Just as it has on Obama’s watch.

    Obama is actually barred from using the civilian courts as much as Bush did – because Congress, at the GOP’s behest, has blocked administration attempts to bring Guantamo detainees to America for trial. So Republicans can only attack Obama for the suspects nabbed on American soil (like the failed Times Square bomber), or the suspects he brings to America directly from overseas (like Abu Ghaith). But still, how great was it yesterday that they put a cork in it?

    Perhaps they’ve finally run out of steam (at least on this issue), and have come to realize that hundreds of civilian convictions are actually something to be proud of. As retired Brigadier General James Cullen, a former chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeal, said in 2010, while defending the practice of reading terrorist suspects their rights, “Attacks on the rule of law constitute a greater danger to all Americans than any threat posed by terrorists….We should challenge anyone who suggests we ignore what makes us stronger.”

    Abu Ghaith sat with bin Laden, praised 9/11 in videos, and warned that America would face a new “storm of airplanes.” Now he’s on his way to the federal slammer, courtesy of the criminal justice system that makes us stronger. So bravo to the muted Republicans, for declining to sully this patriotic moment.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

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