Matthew Yglesias on Terrorist Trials

Why we should treat Nidal Hasan and Khaleid Shaikh Mohammed as criminals

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The crimes of Nidal Hasan and Khaleid Shaikh Mohammed defy easy categorization. Was Hasan's wild shooting an act of terrorism or criminal madness? Was Mohammed's role in engineering the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a horrific crime or an act of war? How we view these men has implications not only for their specific trials but for how we approach terrorism. News that Mohammed is to be tried in federal court in New York City has ignited wide debate about whether this is the appropriate way to prosecute terrorists. Matthew Yglesias argues it's imperative that we look at terrorists like Mohammed and Hasan and see criminals, not "warriors":

In political terms, the right likes the war idea because it involves taking terrorism more "seriously." But in doing so, you partake of way too much of the terrorists' narrative about themselves. It's their conceit, after all, that blowing up a bomb in a train station and killing a few hundred random commuters is an act of war. And war is a socially sanctioned form of activity, generally held to be a legally and morally acceptable framework in which to kill people. What we want to say, however, is that this sporadic commuter-killing isn’t a kind of war, it’s an act of murder. [...]

After all, do we really want to send the message to the world that a self-starting spree killer like Nidal Malik Hasan is actually engaged in some kind of act of holy war? [...] Insofar as possible, we want to drain anti-American violence of the aura of glory. And that means by-and-large treating its perpetrators like criminals.

His argument looks beyond narrow debates over whether Mohammed's trial will risk acquittal or promote grandstanding or whether he should be executed. By arguing that a civilian trial for Mohammed is good for national security and for the war on terror, he reconciles concerns about the rule of law and keeping Americans safe. It's not for nothing that three Atlantic bloggers of varying ideology all felt compelled to endorse and quote his post at length.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.