Khalid Sheik Mohammed kept his word. When the al-Qaida operative was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 he told his captors, “I’ll see you in New York with my lawyer.”
Whether it was a promise or a wish, it is coming true, as Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that Mohammed along with four other co-conspirators would be brought to justice in civilian federal court in New York.
These five men will be tried and, please God, convicted of planning the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, killing some 3,000 Americans.
Since Holder’s announcement there has been much discussion of the motivation for the government’s decision. Why did the Obama administration want these men tried in a federal courthouse steps away from the site of the Twin Towers, the site of their heinous crime? Why are these five men receiving civilian due process, whereas others held at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will still get military tribunals? Mohammed had already agreed to plead guilty in his military trial and would have been headed straight to execution had it not been for Obama’s and Holder’s decision. Why did they change course?
The criticism and speculation are warranted. But there is one aspect of the civilian trial that everyone seems to agree on: that evidence will be brought out in open court that otherwise would remain under wraps.
Those who oppose the government’s decision say that a civilian trial will allow the defense to question the government’s tactics in eliciting information from the accused. Namely, Mohammed and his fellow terrorists will be able to undermine evidence against them by claiming information was gained under duress and torture. As the man who prosecuted the World Trade Center bomber and planners has said, such disclosures only serve al-Qaida and make Americans less safe.
But just as there will be a defense so will there be a prosecution.
Perhaps the best hope for the New York trial is that the proceedings somehow remain focused on the crimes for which these men are accused. Mohammed was, according to the 9/11 Commission report, the “principle architect of the 9/11 attacks.”
As the designer of the events of that day, let’s see the results of his work. Let’s have the prosecution produce and disseminate pictures of the bodies falling from the towers. Let’s see the close-ups of the people hanging out the windows from the upper stories.
In the years since 9/11 there has been a tendency to want to scrub that day of its most horrific images. The accepted wisdom is that somehow reality itself is too gruesome. Newspapers have stopped publishing the most graphic pictures from the devastation. Television documentaries have been edited so that the sound of bodies falling to the ground around the World Trade Center plaza is not heard.
But if we are going to have the men who wanted to kill all these Americans on trial next to the site of their success, let’s really show exactly what they accomplished. Put a face to as many of the victims as possible. Mohammed has expressed regret for the children he killed. Let’s have huge posters of all those kids in the courtroom every day of the trial, please.
Investigations into Mohammed’s terror activities have revealed his involvement in many more attacks than simply 9/11, including the decapitation of Daniel Pearl, which Mohamed was said to have ordered. Again, let’s have the full record laid out against this man. There is a video of Pearl’s murder. Let’s have the jury watch it so they know exactly who they are dealing with.
If the defense is going to make a show of what was done to Mohammed, which they inevitably will do, then let the prosecutors make it their mission to expose these men for the evil, murderous, bloody-killers that they are. The gruesome reality of that day is truth enough. And then let justice be served.
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)