Feature

Terrorism: Courts vs. tribunals

Should terrorists be treated like outlaws or warriors?

President Obama insisted last week that he’s serious about fighting terrorism, said Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post. But consider how he’s dealt with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Underwear Bomber,” who made a failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit. In a sane world, Abdulmutallab would be classified not as a criminal but as an enemy combatant in a war, thoroughly grilled about his al Qaida superiors, and tried in a military tribunal and imprisoned for life at Guantánamo. Instead, Obama’s Justice Department has endowed the Nigerian terrorist with all the rights enjoyed by an American citizen, including the right to remain silent. “This is nuts.” So is Obama’s continued insistence on closing Gitmo, to remove it as a recruiting tool for al Qaida. This fanatical Islamic cult, bent on establishing a worldwide medieval theocracy, is “committed to unending war with America” and the West. “You going to change that by closing Guantánamo?” 

No, but you won’t change that by treating terrorists like holy warriors, either, said the Baltimore Sun in an editorial. They want to be seen as soldiers in an existential struggle with the West, but these thugs are fundamentally no different from “any band of outlaws,” like the Mafia or the Mexican drug cartels. Our justice system has dealt quite well with outlaws, anarchists, and domestic terrorists for more than a century, “and there’s no reason it can’t do so again.” In the unconventional conflict with al Qaida, said Michael Kinsley in The New York Times, we must draw a line of justice somewhere. Abroad, we can kill terrorists on sight, but once they cross “the nation’s border,” our nation’s laws should prevail. 

Trying Abdulmutallab in a criminal court has both symbolic and practical value, said Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek. “The purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction.” When we set up an extralegal prison system, or torture people, that overreaction plays into al Qaida’s narrative. Remember, too, that Abdulmutallab’s own father tried to warn us about his son shortly before the attempted bombing. If he’d “believed that the U.S. was a rogue superpower that would abuse his child, would he have turned him in?” To keep this country safe, we must foster “enough trust in America” that wavering friends and relatives are willing to hand over “the terrorist next door.”

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