The 9/11 Trial: Truth Would Free NYC And Imprison KSM

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Earlier this month, I lightly begged for some brilliant psychologist/psychiatrist out there to do a study about whether and to what extent the lingering emotional effects upon New Yorkers of the events of September 11, 2001 have impacted the City's surprising unwillingness to host the federal civilian trial of Al Qaeda conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The line elicited some very intense responses from some very close and beloved friends who live in or near New York; responses that were so uniform that I have come to believe they represent part of a deeply personal, almost instinctual rip tide--secret, swift, dark--that the Obama administration has been fighting ever since it announced a Lower Manhattan trial venue back before Thanksgiving.

It is clear from some of the reaction to the KSM trial that a vast number of Americans, and certainly a huge portion of New York's population, are still emotionally (and quite naturally and justifiably) shattered by the events of 9/11. They fight against a terror trial in the city not because it's expensive (the feds would pay) or because it's unsafe (New York will be a fortress during the proceedings) or because they feel it will give our enemies some sort of political platform (it won't). They fight against it truly because consciously or subconciously they cannot bear the thought of reliving in their midsts, almost exactly 10 years later, the worst day so many of them have ever had on Earth.    

This is not a universal sentiment, of course, and appears wholly irrational to millions of other Americans, living in or out of Lower Manhattan that day, who believe there is nothing to fear from seeing the architect of so much tragedy judged by the very people he already has confessed to killing and to trying to kill. Yet when this group cites all of the success New York has earned in hosting big trials, or all of the success the federal government has had trying terror suspects since 9/11, the response is always the same. 9/11 was different. The criminals are monsters. Not here. Not now. Not ever. A "firing squad would be good enough for me," as one friend put it.

Except the criminals (terrorists, warriors, jihadists, whatever you want to call them) are not monsters or superhuman. They aren't going to break out of prison like James Bond. I keep shouting to all who will listen: Mohammed is just a man, after all, a man like Timothy McVeigh or Terry Nichols or Theodore Kaczynski or Ramzi Yousef. He's a man who helped other men exploit our national security weaknesses a decade ago--but he's just a mere mortal who was captured while he was sleeping in a bed in Pakistan and not in a foxhole or in a cave on the battle front in Afghanistan.

It clearly makes some people feel better to dehumanize him anyway. By enhancing Mohammed's perceived power, evilness and guile we diminish the government's blame for not protecting us better as well as our own responsibility to bear witness to his trial. But it's all just hooey. The not-quite-shoebomber Richard Reid was relegated to punk status when he was called out by Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Young in Boston. The not-quite-20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui came off to his Virginia jurors as a mere blowhard. And I don't know that jurors even noticed the not-quite-dirty-bomber Jose Padilla before they rushed off to convict him. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab? Please. Are we really afraid of treating the not-quite-underwear-bomber like a common thug? 

My point is not to diminish the seriousness of any of these lesser crimes and criminals--and it's certainly not to dispute the historical fact that 9/11 was by orders of magniture the nation's worst terror attack and crime. My point instead is that the debate over where to try Mohammed is a lopsided battle between the logical and the emotional; between those who can point to 200 years of federal trial precedent over terrorists and those who point to the big space where the Twin Towers once stood.

By using these charged words, I don't mean to pass judgment. I believe the New Yorkers who are fighting against a KSM trial truly believe the proceedings will dredge up for them terrible memories. And it almost certainly would. Restrained only by the grace of the trial judge, the government's evidence against Mohammed would reflect the horror of 9/11. Witnesses would testify, many under oath for the first time, about what they endured at Ground Zero. The names of the dead would be read. The justifiable rage of the victims and survivors would roil. 

I have compassion and empathy for anyone who today still cannot bear to think back upon that day. I have cried with them and for them many times. But emotion cannot rule as policy. KSM and his ilk need to be processed and prosecuted; their legal stories need to end; the world needs to see that we can fairly try even our worst enemies. Sorry, you supporters of military tribunals, you had your chance for nearly eight years to get it right. And through your own greed you failed. It's time for a change. And the quickest way to accomplish the goal is by holding a federal civilian trial near Ground Zero.

Be not afraid, New York; the truth shall set all of us free, all of us except for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that is.  

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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