Why are Republicans dissing the American justice system? That doesn’t seem very patriotic.
Back when George W. Bush was president, Republicans were fine with routing terrorists through the federal criminal courts – heck, the Bush team got 370 convictions that way – yet today, they think it’s a sign of wimpy weakness to prosecute terrorists like criminals.
Why the huge change in ‘tude? Duh. Because Barack Obama is doing it.
Earlier this week, while commenting on the capture of Benghazi suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala, the president said that “this individual will now face the full weight of the American justice system.” Bingo! The Republicans had something to whine about. They quickly went into “yeah but” mode, as in, “Yeah, Obama got the guy, but he’s doing it all wrong.”
It’s outrageous, they said, that Obama intends to treat Khattala like a common thug and take him to federal court – in the words of Benghazi-hunting congressman Trey Gowdy, Khattala committed “an act of terror tantamount more to a war than a criminal-code violation” – and they said that a true tough-on-terror president would dispatch Khattala to a military tribunal down in Guantanamo.
Did these people have their memories surgically removed, or what?
Between 2001 and 2008, the Bush team routinely routed its terrorism cases through the federal criminal courts, and got convictions roughly 90 percent of the time; today, largely because of those efforts, more than 300 terrorists are incarcerated in U.S. federal prisons. The Bush team prosecuted and convicted failed shoe bomber Richard Reid in federal court. It prosecuted and convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in federal court. It prosecuted and convicted dirty bomb planner Jose Padilla in federal court.
Back then, Republicans proudly extolled the American justice system and the American rule of law. But somehow it’s wrong for Obama to extol the American justice system and the American rule of law.
Ever since he took office, they’ve assailed him for doing exactly what Bush always did. Every time a new terrorist case pops up, they denounce him for using the federal courts. Round and round they go, fulfilling the credo articulated on HBO’s True Detective by existential cop Rustin Cohle: “Time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.”
They always insist that Obama skip the courts and try the suspects in military tribunals (where they’d have fewer rights). Yet somehow they always manage to forget that even Bush used the tribunals only sparingly. Bush notched a grand total of three tribunal convictions – two of which were later overturned on appeal.
All told, the Bush and Obama teams have successfully prosecuted nearly 500 terrorists in the federal courts. The total number of military tribunal convictions: 8. (Because of GOP-sponsored legislation, Obama is required to use the tribunals to prosecute Guantanamo inmates. He can’t bring them to the American courts.)
Here’s what will probably happen in the Khattala case: He’ll be convicted on criminal charges in federal court, he’ll get a stiff sentence…and by then, Republicans won’t be fuming anymore. They typically get mad when Obama sends a suspect to court, but much later, when the system works, they barely say a word. Fifteen months ago, they fumed when an Osama bin Laden adviser was routed to court (Mitch McConnell said that criminal prosecutions “make our nation less safe”), yet when the guy was convicted and sentenced this past March…not a peep from the GOP.
What Republicans fail to understand – although they knew this quite well when Bush was president – is that “the full weight of the American justice system” is actually something to be proud of. Prosecuting terrorists in accordance with our values is a sign of strength, not weakness. Treating terrorists like common criminals diminishes their cause. And Republicans who keep dissing our justice system need to be called out.
Which is exactly what James Cullen has done. A retired brigadier general and former chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeal, Cullen said in 2010: “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.”
We just did. And since the GOP is stuck on its flat circle, we’ll need to keep doing it.
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