Sunday, November 29, 2009

Terrorists, Trials, and Petitions

Recently I got an email asking my opinion of an electronic petition.

The petition, circulated via email, protests the White House’s proposed plan to conduct terrorist trials in New York.

There are actually several petitions, one being conducted by Trey Grayson, currently Secretary of State for Kentucky. Trey wants to be a Senator and he figures to rally the base with his little petition. The other one, the one being circulated primarily by email is from a site called iPetition where anybody can float a petition of any kind, from stopping terrorism to stopping Mylie Cryus.

I wasn’t entirely sure whether the writer was asking what I think of electronic petitions or the proposed terrorism trials in New York.

So I’ll answer both.

First, Electronic Petitions:

Personally I think electronic petitions are complete crap and a waste of time. Petitions in general rarely work other than on the local level, they almost never affect the actions of the state or federal government in any way, shape, or form. And in this case, I think they make angry people feel as if they’re doing something, but the truth of the matter is that while 500,000 "signatures" sounds like a lot, it's only a fraction of the national population - and a small enough fraction that politicians can safely ignore it. Politicians routinely ignore the opinions of millions, just as long as those millions are in the opposing party, so why would they pay any attention at all to a petition where the majority of “signatures” aren’t even in their voting district?

And the truth of the matter is that they don’t pay any attention to them at all.

In fact, there is nothing in the law, again at the national level (local governments may have different local laws) that says the government has to pay any attention to a petition no matter how many signatures it contains. We are a representative democracy, i.e. a republic, once elected our leaders are not obligated to bend to the will of the mob - and often don't. If you don’t like that, or what your leaders are deciding in your name, well you can vote them out of office next time around. And in the case of electronic petitions, I think that is a good thing, there’s a reason why our forefathers didn’t set up the United States as a pure democracy and why they didn’t design our government to operate by will of the mob – especially by the will of the mob as expressed by some bogus petition. Up above I said electronic petitions are crap, and crap I meant. There is no way to verify that the "signatures" are valid on an electronic petition, or that the “signatures” are from registered voters or competent adults or even from Americans. And in fact, the “signatures” are not signatures at all, not even electronic ones.

The irony of the electronic petition in this case is that the vast majority of people “signing” it are the same folks who are screaming bloody murder about “voter fraud” and ACORN and “usurpers”, and yet they willingly add their email address to a database that has no oversight or voter verification of any kind. For all they know, 499,000 of those half million signatures could be from illegal aliens.

Also, I really, really, don’t want my name on a list with these illiterate, ignorant, hysterical, mouth breathing dullards (really, read the post and then for an extra treat read the comments – that, my friends, is the NeoCon “Base” right there. These are the folks who intend to vote for Sarah Palin. Wow).

Personally, I think these types of petitions are a singularly useless gesture.

The terrorist trials in New York:

If it was up to me, I'd try them in the wreckage of the WTC, and if found guilty I hang them on a gallows set up dead center on ground zero - right off the top of that one remaining stairway New Yorkers want to turn into a monument.

See terrorists, they believe in gestures, in symbolic actions - which is why they chose the WTC and Pentagon and the White House in the first place. I’d give them a gesture, I would try them in the midst of the carnage they wrought, surrounded by the city and the nation they failed to destroy and the relatives of the victims.

And as a great big old symbolic fuck you to the goddamned terrorists, I’d try them as common criminals.

That’s right.

I wouldn’t call it a terrorist trial. I try them as common hijackers, as common arsonists, as common murders. I’d never mention terrorism or radical Islam and I wouldn’t let them do it either. I wouldn’t let them be martyrs or symbols. No statements, no grandstanding, no posturing. Period. Just as in any trial where the accused wants to make a speech or derail the proceedings or behave in an unruly fashion, he can either behave and stick to the facts and accusations or be put in a room with a big evil tempered bailiff and a closed circuit TV and tried anyway.


I think at this point we are facing a catch-22. The previous administration’s handling of these men – i.e the taint of torture, rendition, Gitmo, extra constitutional means, and the bizarre legal limbo of non-national “enemy combatant” status - has irretrievably fouled the situation.

1) I think it's a mistake to try them in civilian court. I think the evidence is profoundly tainted at this point, and we either have to throw it out and allow for the significant possibility that these men will be set free - not found innocent, mind you, but set free because the evidence against them cannot be used – or we must break our own laws and conduct show trials with the conclusion and assumption of guilt a forgone conclusion, and that will finally destroy any remaining illusion that we are a nation of law and justice in the eyes of our own people and the world – though I have no doubt the knuckle dragging “Patriots” linked to above would approve, which is as good of reason as any to avoid doing this in the first place.

2) I think the concept of a trial by military commission is flawed. I seriously doubt that anybody believes that these men would get a fair and honest trial if tried by military commission (though I do think that they could, depending on the conditions of the tribunal and its makeup). And the world’s perception matters – yes, it does. America needs the rest of the world to fight the real threats, we need the rest of the world if we are to win in Afghanistan, don’t think for one moment that we don’t. We need the rest of the world if we are to eradicate the growing threat of terrorism and piracy off the Horn of Africa for example. Terrorism is an international problem, it requires an international solution and cooperation. If America appears to be a nation who disregards her own law, who disregards international law and agreement, who goes rogue – why then would anyone cooperate with us? And the answer is, they won’t. QED.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, we don’t give these men a fair and honest trial for their sakes, we give them a fair and honest trial for our own sake, for the sake of the United States of America. We are a nation of law, and a nation who adheres to our law and obligations even when they don’t suit us, or we are not. Period.

We’re Americans, we’re supposed to be the good guys.

These men, no matter how evil, must have a fair and non biased trial.

Hopefully followed by a fine hanging.

There was a time when these men could have received a fair and untainted trial in America, we are long past that point – it does no good to fix blame on either the Obama Administration or that of George W. Bush. It is what it now is, and we must find a way to deal with it with in the context of our own law.

Personally, I think at this point, that only solution that satisfies all criteria would be an international war crimes commission.

But Americans won’t stand for that. These men attacked us, and we will have our pound of flesh for 911.

No matter what it costs us in the long run.


  1. Jim, I think you mean a civilian court. A small thing, but significant: in the United States, a civil court trial would involve victims suing the alleged criminals for a tort and only monetary damages would ensue.

    I agree entirely that they should be treated as accused criminals and not "terrorists," and for exactly the reasons you describe. (I couldn't have put it better myself.)

    And you're also right about what happens with disruptive defendants. One of the appalling things about the right-wing position on criminal trials for these suspects, above and beyond the delay/denial of justice and the fact that we are (as you say) supposed to be the good guys, is that the right appears to have no faith in our system of justice at all. Should one of them stand up and start giving a speech about his religion, or politics, or the alleged evils of America, he would not be the first and surely would not be the last. Some defendants do that--and they get told to sit down, shut up, or face sanctions including additional charges for contempt and being removed from the courtroom and tried remotely. The justice system has been dealing with people like this for centuries.

    (To which I expect someone may say, "Oh no, not someone like these people, these people are blahblahblah--" Horseshit and nonsense! Our system has tried anarchists, mad bombers, serial killers, saboteurs, mob thugs, and anyone else you can name, in peacetime and in wartime and any other kind of time, and the only thing different about these defendants is the number of indictments, so don't even bother with that played-out "these men are different" garbage.)

    Speaking of which, one minor but perhaps pointless bit of disagreement, Jim: having finally gotten around to Michael Dobbs' Saboteurs, I'm not wholly convinced there was ever a time these men could have gotten a fair trial--FDR said something similar about the captured Nazi spies to what you said about these men when he ordered a military tribunal for them--he wanted a quick trial and good hanging. That having been said, two of the men received prison sentences for their co-operation, which were commuted after only a few years. Still, even without an active act of violence--the Nazi raid was very similar to the 9/11 criminals in its goals and implementation, but the mission leaders seem to have been more intent on defecting back to the U.S. than on actually destroying lives and property--anger ran high and strong against the men.

    But just because a fair trial is unlikely doesn't mean we shouldn't attempt to live according to our principles and not enslaved to our fears. FDR also said, famously, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Today, I'd say we have nothing to fear but fear and the cowards who don't believe in our most basic civic institutions.

  2. Jim, though I read your blog nearly every day I rarely comment for two reasons: I usually agree with your position and you seem to have thought of most of the angles and, therefore, I don't have much to add. One thing I will add here is another wrinkle.

    You are absolutely right to say we give them a fair trial not for them, but for us. Not only is the world watching but, more specifically, the world Muslim community is watching. If we are ever to start building bridges to that community instead of burning them, this is the time. It will certainly take generations to establish any meaningful relationship with most Muslim societies, but I do believe this could be a first step in building America's credibility.

    The downside of taking that chance is, of course, the possibility of an aquittal for one or more of the defendants and the subsequent media circus. One can easily picture a situation similar to the homecoming of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the freed Lockerbie bomber, writ large. For those who think that is the worst that could happen from this already flawed situation, I would urge you to think again. The worst would be the worldwide condemnation that would result from a military tribunal (read "sham trial") and execution of sentence. Like it or not, we need to deal in a fair and honest manner with the rest of the world community in order to prosper as a nation. A trial that progresses through the normal, constitutionally mandated process is the only way to go.

  3. Civil amended to Civilian. Thanks, Eric

  4. "Petitions in general rarely work other than on the local level, they almost never affect the actions of the state or federal government in any way, shape, or form."

    Speaking as a native Californian, Jim, I heartily wish you were 100 percent correct in your statement (above).

    Unfortunately for me and my fellow citizens of this Golden State, we seem to be the exception to your rule.

    Gotta love our Propositions ... not.

  5. This (NY) is where the crime happened. This (NY) is where the trial should take place. PERIOD.

    BTW, I agree that that simple concepts like murder and conspiracy, etc. should be the charges, (not terrorism), but I'll also point out that trials in NYC have a 100% conviction rate in similar trials. I'm willing to put up with a little more traffic around Foley Square while it's going on. I'm even willing to put up with the possibility that some asshole will try to "avenge" his brother because of the trial.

  6. Nick, well, Cahleefornia is always the exception to the rule when it comes to politics, how's that working out for you by the way?

    And that's why I said "rarely" instead of "never." Though I think you'd be hard pressed to find a petition, electronic or otherwise, that succeeded in changing policy at the national level.

  7. I was wondering what you'd say, Nathan, being a New Yorker and all - nice to know that I know you well enough to predict your response within two decimal points. ;)

  8. well i think a fair trial in New york is a good idea. now for those who know me wait and hear me out, i agree jim the evidence is tainted and in any fair court there case would be thrown out. so let it let the case be thrown out in the eyes of the world and grandstand on national Tv as they walk out of the court house free men into the streets of new york city. were thousands of americas favorite sons annd daughters, yes New Yorkers will be waiting to greet them with open arms as free men. i belive that if this were to be the course of events then America and the world will be a very happy place

  9. I agree that we should try them in civilian courts, but only for one very simple reason. We try them as common criminals. That is a political statement. The other side just loves that we've declared war on them because it legitimizes their claims and makes them appear more scary than they really are. Instead we should tell the world they're nothing better than common thugs and we know how to handle common thugs.

    We'll try them, give them the full protection of law, have the special rules for state's secrets (when needed), and as long as we've done everything right, find them guilty and hopefully for a capital crime. And while I agree with the hanging part (and here I'll lobby for a pirate's hanging which is slightly different) or the cutting of heads and Mast of Morrigan treatment, I'll settle for the injection after all their appeals are heard.

    At worst, even if the case is dismissed, they're going right back to Gitmo or where ever we end up holding them. There's plenty of other reasons to hold them in custody.

  10. I think a secondary effect of a civilian trial would be that some of the dirty laundry of the methods and tactics of the interrogations and prisoner treatment would be brought into the open for everyone to see, and the perpetrators of such, who wiped their collective asses with the constitution, might just have to answer for it. At least it’s my personal hope. Maybe even the Glorious Leader of the right wing of the GOP might have to defend himself from this “hidden location” in Wyoming. Sorry for the run-on sentence.

    tates... is that a noun or verb?

  11. I would point out that approximately 3000 homicides took place in the State of New York, County of New York, and the local DA is not prevented from bringing trial.

    His hands are unsullied by Federal actions, although existing evidence would (probably) be tainted.

    The lawyer I asked is of the opinion that while Federal charges take precedent, they do not negate the NY ones.

    With regard to the German saboteurs captured on the beach in WWII. They were not operating in uniform, but in civilian clothing. As such there is some question if the Geneva accords even requires a trial. And if I recall, a Supreme court justice sat on the tribunal.

  12. Having resided in northern California for (cofftoolongcoff) seventeen years now, I can tell you those petition drives are too successful for all the wrong reasons. They bring out the wingnuts from both ends of the political spectrum (north of the Bay Area there actually is more than one end to that spectrum), frothing at the mouth and annoying citizens who are just out trying to do the shopping, or enjoy a festival, or whatever. I could wish they'd annoy everyone to the point where they do what I do -- refuse to sign any petition whatsoever.

    One day, annoyed at the persistence of the fellow who was shoving his petition in the face of every passerby he could reach, my husband (who spent several years in local/state politics) actually stopped and questioned him pretty thoroughly about the nature of the document he was pressing on everyone. Politely, firmly, refusing to take his sound-byte repetitions as real answers. After two questions, the idiot was completely flummoxed -- and foaming at the mouth.

    I'm not kidding. He had little flecks of foaming spittle collecting at the corners of his mouth -- but no answers past the facile, shallow things he'd been told by whatever loony-bin local group that had gotten him as a volunteer. M dismissed him, we entered the store and did our shopping.

    When we came out, the line to sign that damned thing was as long as it had been when we entered -- but the mouth breather refused to make eye contact with us as we left. I have no idea if his petition made it onto the ballot, but I kinda doubt it.

    As for the trials -- you've parsed it pretty much as I have. I do think the proper venue for terrorists is the world criminal court. Since that's not going to happen, try them as the common thugs they are and have done with it. This has been hanging around our necks for much, much too long.

  13. California People, you're all talking about petitions to get an item on the voting agenda. And you are, of course, correct - especially in California, land of the outraged, knee jerk petition. Those petitions have very specific rules and laws that govern how they are administered and the only thing they do is get something on the ballot, nothing else.

    That's not what I'm talking about in this post. What we're talking about here are petitions aimed at changing the behavior of politicians. This petition supposedly expresses widespread disapproval for holding terrorist trials in New York. But there's nothing binding about it. Nor should there be. The petition is an empty gesture, it means nothing - no politician is going to pay any attention to it whatsoever. And they shouldn't.

    Totally different thing.

  14. Been away a bit Jim, but again, nice post.

    My philosophy in this whole matter is summed up neatly by this:

    We’re Americans, we’re supposed to be the good guys.

    Kinda like the end of "A Few Good Men", eh? Perhaps one day we will be as wise as that cashier lance Corporal Downey...

    We'd be much safer and much further ahead in leading the globe in some real GLOBAL problems if we could keep this simple sentence in mind.



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