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Informed Comment

The Only Anchor

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Friday that some top al-Qaeda 9/11 conspirators will be tried by jury in New York not far from the scenes of devastation that they had wrought.

This decision by the Obama administration demonstrates faith in the American way of life, and a conviction that even the worst mass murderers can be dealt justice by democratic institutions.

Predictably, Republican critics vowed to fight the decision, since they much prefer to hold people forever without trial while torturing them, sort of the way some English kings did in North America before there was that pesky American constitution. In fact, on a whole range of issues, the contemporary Republican Party is a party of medieval romanticism. Its disquisitions on when the human person begins are theological in character and rooted in assumptions even a lot of medievals would have questioned. Its faith that bankers would never steal from us and so do not need to be regulated is a form of mysticism that medievals would have applied to saints. And its fascination with arbitrary arrest and imprisonment and with torture more recalls the star chambers of yore than the deliberations at Philadelphia over 200 years ago.

Let us listen not to John Boehner of Ohio but to a Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson:

' "I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine, 1789. ME 7:408, Papers 15:269 '

Or here is John Adams:


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"Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty." - John Adams (1774)

Many Republicans oppose not only jury trials but even habeas corpus for the prisoners at Guantanamo (the right to apply to a court judge to be produced in court so that the authorities are forced to justify the prisoner's imprisonment). They do so on supposed national security grounds, just as the British kings used to. In fact, of course, these prisoners have no fresh information on plots and cannot possibly know anything of value to any contemporary terrorists at large, since they have been sequestered for so many years.

Here is what Thomas Jefferson had to say about the suspension of rights such as habeas corpus on national security grounds:

' "Why suspend the habeas corpus in insurrections and rebellions? The parties who may be arrested may be charged instantly with a well defined crime; of course, the judge will remand them. If the public safety requires that the government should have a man imprisoned on less probable testimony in those than in other emergencies, let him be taken and tried, retaken and retried, while the necessity continues, only giving him redress against the government for damages. Examine the history of England. See how few of the cases of the suspension of the habeas corpus law have been worthy of that suspension. They have been either real treasons, wherein the parties might as well have been charged at once, or sham plots, where it was shameful they should ever have been suspected. Yet for the few cases wherein the suspension of the habeas corpus has done real good, that operation is now become habitual and the minds of the nation almost prepared to live under its constant suspension." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 7:97 '

Al-Qaeda number 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri mocked the US that real liberty ". . . is not the freedom of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib." The Republican way of dealing with terrorists gave enormous propaganda tools to al-Qaeda.

Obama just took those propaganda tools away from the enemy and began the process of repairing America's reputation and its fidelity to its own ideals.

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Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st. He is also the author of Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (both Palgrave Macmillan). He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.

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