Soundings

Peter Reinharz
Why We Need Military Tribunals
A bin Ladin dream-team defense, it don’t make sense.
Winter 2002

President Bush’s suggestion that the U.S. might use military tribunals in the War on Terror to try members of al-Qaida has met with hostility from civil libertarians on both the Right and Left. “Anyone charged with being involved in the attacks, including Osama bin Laden, should stand trial in an ordinary American court,” the New York Times editorialized, for only there would the government “prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt before an independent jury, while affording the defendants the right to appeal and to all other procedural safeguards included in the notion of due process.”

This is, to put it bluntly, nuts. The idea of civilian U.S. trials for terrorists caught in combat overseas is really nuts. Say that our soldiers did nab bin Ladin and Mullah Omar in Afghanistan and dutifully sent them back to America for trial. If the civil libertarians had their way, the questions would pile up fast. Did the soldiers capture the terror capos without reading them their Miranda rights? Did the U.S. military have probable cause to seize the now-infamous videotape that proves bin Ladin’s complicity in the September 11 attacks? Should our special forces have chased down a warrant before searching Omar’s compound? How about a Johnnie Cochrane defense for bin Ladin? Simply to ask these questions is to show that military tribunals are essential.

If military tribunals for terrorists we catch overseas are a no-brainer, there’s a good case to make that we should use them to try al-Qaida members we catch on our shores too. The al-Qaida network, after all, has declared a jihad against the U.S. and has committed an act of war on our soil, so we should view the actions of their agents in America as those of enemy soldiers out of uniform. Military tribunals for spies and saboteurs are nothing special.

We’ve already seen the workings of the civilian courts in bringing al-Qaida members to justice. The terrorists prosecuted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing went through the civilian justice system. The date sentencing was originally to have taken place: September 11, 2001.

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