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9/11 justice : The decision to try five accused terrorists in a N.Y. civilian court is a victory for the rule of law.

November 14, 2009

To predictable criticism, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Friday that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other accused 9/11 conspirators held at Guantanamo Bay will be put on trial in New York City. The fact that even Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks, will have his day in court makes an eloquent statement about the Obama administration's determination to avenge the victims of terrorism within the rule of law.

Holder immediately was denounced by Democrats and Republicans alike for sending the cases to the civilian judicial system rather than military commissions (which, inexplicably, he has decided to entrust with the trials of those accused of attacking the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000). In the weeks ahead, the administration will need to redouble its efforts to calm hysteria in Congress about the supposed threat posed by moving detainees to U.S. soil.

Ironically, one focus of the criticism is a fact Holder emphasized in his announcement: that Mohammed and the other defendants "will be brought to New York to answer for their alleged crimes in a courthouse just blocks from where the twin towers once stood." Critics say that bringing the trial to New York would make the city a target again. Yet Omar Abdel Rahman, the "blind sheik" convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up several New York landmarks, was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in that city without incident.

It's not crucial, however, that the alleged architects of 9/11 face their legal reckoning near the site of the attacks. Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, was tried and sentenced to death not in that city but in Denver. What matters is that they will be afforded the panoply of rights enjoyed by defendants in U.S. courts, including a prohibition on the use of illegally obtained evidence.

To try these accused terrorists in civilian courts doesn't equate them with common criminals, as Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Independent, has suggested. Obviously they're not accused of robbing banks or committing extortion, but neither are they traditional prisoners of war who are being held until the foreseeable end of hostilities. Given the seemingly indefinite duration of the war on terror, criminal trials offer the fairest way to determine whether they should be confined.

Holder said he's confident that Mohammed and the others will be convicted and face the death penalty. Still, the ultimate decision -- unless one or more defendants plead guilty -- will be a jury's. That is of inestimable value to the image of the United States so damaged by the excesses of the George W. Bush administration.

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