Terror Trials Are Our Defining Moment

“We (should) wrap him in bacon and deep fry him at a state fair while Lee Greenwood stabs him in the face.” — Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” on confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

And seriously now, who doesn’t agree?

You’d have to be defective in your humanity not to. Mohammed plotted the greatest act of mass murder in American history. Who among us wouldn’t like a piece of this guy?

Indeed, if critics of Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try him and his terrorist confederates in a New York City courtroom would be honest with themselves, they’d admit that this is what drives their condemnation, not questions of security, fears of acquittal or other obfuscatory concerns they’ve raised.

No, the baseline here is the understandable belief that these thugs, these gangsters of Islam, have no right to a trial, that the American legal system, with all its protections for the accused, all its rights and procedures and niceties, is more than they deserve.

Americans have always been ambivalent about the ability of our justice system to give bad people what they’ve got coming. That’s why the action movie almost always ends with the bad guy shot, impaled or fed into a wood chipper: seeing him led away in handcuffs simply doesn’t impart the same visceral sense of just deserts.

But you have to wonder: are our emotional needs the most important consideration here?

It’s worth remembering that even the architects of the greatest barbarism in history had their day in court. After burning away 11 million lives, the leaders of the Nazi regime found themselves facing not summary execution, but a trial before a military tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany.

As prosecutor Robert Jackson put it: “That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason.”

And when the trials were over and the verdicts delivered — death or imprisonment for most, three were acquitted — the New York Times editorialized as follows: “These sentences can neither atone for all the evil these men have brought into the world nor undo any part of it. But they help to assuage the conscience of mankind and to restore to honor the concept of the dignity of man which cannot be violated with impunity.”

Compare that with the Bush administration’s original, Supreme Court-rebuked vision of justice — minimal rights for the accused, torture allowed, the government’s thumb on justice’s scale — and maybe you’ll agree: we need this trial more than Mohammed does. For all its risks — and they are real — it offers a prize worth risking for: the promise of feeling like Americans again.

That feeling is arguably the most significant casualty of Sept. 11. On that day, we elevated a mob of stateless criminals, a mafia in cleric’s clothing, to the exalted level of rogue nation. But they were never that, never a threat to our national existence; they lacked the forces to take even one square inch of American soil. What they could threaten — and take — was our sense of ourselves as a brave, reasonable and civilized people, inhabiting a nation of laws. They beckoned us into the mud with them, and we leapt.

It’s not the first time. Periodically, we have shed the burden of bravery, reason, civilization, laws. Always, it happens in moments of national stress, moments of overwhelming confusion, anger or fear, moments that make us prey to demons of expedience and moral compromise. Moments when we wonder if we can still afford to act like America.

But we face a band of bloodthirsty hoodlums whose dearest wish is to make us just like them. So maybe the better question is this:

Can we afford not to?

(c) 2009 The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Author: Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.