During the first couple of weeks after Sept. 11, we'd stand around the office and wonder about Osama bin Laden's eventual fate. Some said he'd never be taken alive. Others said a trial and a life sentence would be more favorable to U.S. interests than instant martyrdom.
I agreed with that. But I had trouble with the idea that U.S. President George W. Bush, who signed 152 death warrants as governor of Texas, would allow Mr. bin Laden a soapbox on U.S. soil, complete with the right to drag out a legal defense for years, the prospect of incarceration at public expense -- and the possibility, however faint, of an acquittal.
I still have trouble with it. If U.S. forces track down Mr. bin Laden, the most probable outcome is that he will die on the spot. It could be presented in one of several ways: suicide, shot while resisting arrest, caught in crossfire, shot during a firefight, died trying to escape. Any one of them might actually be true.
But should Mr. bin Laden surrender peacefully, extrajudicial execution would be unacceptable. So forget the probabilities for a moment, and think about how the world's most wanted man ought to be put on trial.
We now know that Mr. Bush wants potentially secret military proceedings, probably on foreign soil, in which the prosecution makes the rules and the rights of the accused are sharply limited. "These are extraordinary times," he said on Monday, dismissing the observation that almost everyone else in the world would consider such trials to be a mockery of justice.
Once again, the U.S. President is inadvertently showing us why the framework of war he has constructed for his counterterrorism campaign is so inappropriate. The mass murders of Sept. 11 were civilian crimes, and their perpetrators should be treated accordingly. If taken alive, they should not enjoy the status of belligerents under the international law of armed conflict.
Assuming the evidence exists, they should be tried as civilians for murder. Several avenues have been suggested, including an international tribunal such as the one now trying Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic, or a non-U.S. court such as the one that convicted a Libyan in the Lockerbie airliner bombing.
The best option may be the simplest: try Mr. bin Laden and his co-accused in the United States, where the crimes occurred. A federal court in Manhattan convicted al-Qaeda terrorists who helped to bomb two U.S. embassies in East Africa. It was possible to select a jury. The trial produced life sentences (without parole) and a wealth of evidence, including much of what we know about the bin Laden terror network. The death penalty was, and would be, an option.
That trial demonstrated how effective a national court can be in judging international crimes. Canada should encourage Mr. Bush to take this road again. Not only would it produce trustworthy justice for the victims of Sept. 11, it would stand as a powerful argument wherever tinpot autocrats need to be persuaded of the virtues of transparent civilian courts.
Summary justice for serious crimes is wrong, whether it's a Star Chamber or a bullet in the back of the head. Confront atrocity boldly and openly. Try the suspects in bright sunlight, with a daisy cutter's worth of facts, for all the world to see. Your soapbox will be at least as big as theirs.
Far better that than skulking in the legal shadows, nurturing medieval myths and feeding the martyr machine.
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