Saturday, November 14, 2009

Welcome to New York, Terrorists: American Justice Wants to Meet You

As a New Yorker, I experienced the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center from a mere 10 blocks north.

As an American, I can’t imagine a better place to try self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators than in Manhattan federal court, just a few blocks from Ground Zero.

Yes, it brings back bad memories. It poses legal and security challenges. But that would be true no matter where we tried these men. Yes, we could try them in a military court. But this was not a military crime. It was a crime committed by foreign civilians against the people of America. And while military courts are closed, civilian courts are open. That’s a good thing, because America and the rest of the world need to watch.

I want to see them face justice in an American courtroom, and, hell, yeah, as close as possible to the site where they broke my heart and shattered my soul. I have battle scars. We all do, no matter where we were the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

I was on my way to the West 4th Street subway to get to work up at Times Square. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. And then it happened. At first, there were just a few observers. But as we walked south toward Canal Street, the crowd grew.

We watched as determined rescuers – firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians – raced to the scene, sirens blaring. They drove fearlessly right into the heart of the beast, most of them never to return.

We gathered around any vehicle with a radio – cabs, service vans, the occasional car – and tried to comprehend the scope of it all: Four commercial airliners had been hijacked. One had flown into the North Tower, another into the South Tower. Another had flown right into the Pentagon in Washington. And the fourth, well, we’ve never heard what its target was. A cadre of heroic passengers forced their hijacked plane to crash in rural Pennsylvania rather than allow their captors to have their way.

Back in New York, I stood on Canal Street, wanting to comfort the bleeding, disheveled victims who ran toward us, struggling to breathe. I watched powerlessly as the towers collapsed – sealing the collective fate of more than 2,600 people who could not escape.

I am still angry.

I am still horrified.

I am still brokenhearted.

And I want justice. I want it badly.

So when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to try the men who allegedly planned the attacks in federal court in downtown Manhattan, I felt good. I felt really good.

Holder explained that the five 9/11 defendants would be tried in civilian court, while five others, charged in the Oct. 12, 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole, docked at the time in the Yemeni port of Aden, would face justice in a military court. That seems reasonable to me. The Cole was a military target. And, while the Pentagon was attacked on 9/11, it was an attack on all of us.

Finally, these defendants, held in limbo at Guantanamo Bay during the Bush administration, will face justice, American-style, for the deaths of nearly 3,000 people that day.

I find the schism over whether they should be tried in civilian or military court amazing and the fact that it's shaping up along political lines even stranger. We all bear these scars. We’ve borne them since 2001.

Let’s get some justice and let’s watch it unfold. After all, the attacks happened right before our eyes; so, too, should the trials of the accused. Military courts aren’t transparent; they’re shrouded in secrecy. True, there’s an advantage when dealing with classified information and state secrets.

But such challenges will exist regardless of where we try the defendants. Holder said he was confident that the men would be convicted, and the New York Times reported that other administration officials said they had ample legal authority to keep classified information secret.

The United States Constitution is the best in the world. Our justice system is among the best in the world. If we don’t believe in them, we don’t deserve them. So let’s allow our constitution and our legal system to work. Let’s watch these defendants experience American justice firsthand.

Let’s stop the polarization, the whining about increased risk to the city of New York, legal entanglements and national security. Of all times to be divided, this isn’t one of them.

The Feds will be out in force during the trial. And New York can handle it. No city police department is as equipped and ready for any and all security threats as New York City.

You heard New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered.”

Rudolph Giuliani, who has decorated himself as some kind of hero because he was the mayor of New York on 9/11, disagrees. He thinks the defendants should be tried in military court.

“This is the same mistake we made with the 1993 terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center. We treated them like domestic criminals, when in fact they were terrorists," Giuliani said in response to Holder's announcement Friday.

In truth, all six of the 1993 terrorist bombing defendants were tried and convicted in in federal court in Manhattan, each of them sentenced to 240 years in prison with no chance of parole. I'd say that worked out just fine.

But, Giuliani insists, "In the dangerous world we live in today, a nation unable to identify and properly define its enemies is a nation in danger.”

Save it, Rudy. You’re no authority and you're certainly no hero. I walked right past you after the attack. You walked north, as I walked south. You walked away, as I walked into the fray. And I heard you say, loud and clear, to your aides who walked beside you: “Where are we?”

Admit it: You weren’t in control that day. You were dazed and confused. So, yes, let’s go with Bloomberg’s sentiment.

This is the terrorists' day in court, but it is first and foremost America's day in court, and we will not have it happen in secrecy. We'll have it in the people's court, right in downtown Manhattan. We need to watch. The world needs to watch.

Some of the victims’ families are concerned that the trial will open old wounds. But, let’s be honest. Those wounds are as open and raw as the day the attacks on our country tore us apart – forever traumatizing our hearts and our minds.

So to the terrorists, I say: Bring it. You sent suicide hijackers to murder us on American soil. Now it's your turn. Come to New York. We’ll show you some Big Apple hospitality the legal way.

Maybe then we can start to heal.