Monday, February 11, 2008

Does "Death to America" Warrant "Death to the Terrorist?"

I'm pretty sure that this post is going to attract criticism from both liberal and conservative camps. Since this is a rather long post, here's a sort of index:

The Event

The news broke this morning: "Pentagon charges six in Sept. 11 terror attacks Death penalty will be sought against alleged mastermind, others"

The Players

The six people charged are:
  • Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is suspected of - and has bragged about - planning the 9/11 attacks on the New York World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and whatever target Flight 93 was bound for
  • Mohammed al-Qahtani, the "20th hijacker"
  • Ramzi Binalshibh, the alleged middleman between the hijackers and leaders of al-Qaida
  • Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali AKA Ammar al-Baluchi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's nephew and Mohammed's lieutenant for the 2001 operation
    • Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, al-Baluchis, Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali/Ammar al-Baluchi's helper
  • Waleed bin Attash AKA Khallad, alleged screener and trainer of some of the hijackers
One of the reasons that a trial of these six alleged suspects is controversial is that the plan is to try them in a military court.

Why is this controversial?

There are Americans who disapprove of anything military. Others, including the suspects' lawyers, say that it isn't fair that the trials be conducted in secret. In a way, I don't blame the lawyers. First, open courts are supposed to encourage judges and juries to behave responsibly. Besides, this is a high-profile trial, and one can hardly blame a lawyer from wanting as much publicity as possible.

An argument against an open trial is that information which might help the colleagues of the suspects stage another major attack.

And, of course, here's the matter of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's treatment. Instead of asking him nicely, it seems that he was subjected to "waterboarding." That's an unquestionably unpleasant experience, involving temporary immersion in water. It's been called "torture." On the other hand, forcing detainees to sit on the grass in Guantanamo was called "torture," so the term seems to have a rather low threshold of application.

Two Issues

What strikes me as the two most important points are
  1. Whether these six people should be tried in military or civilian courts
  2. Whether they should be subject to the death penalty
Although I don't think it would be the height of folly to trust a civilian American court with the trial, I think that such a decision would be close to the ragged edge of madness.
Civilian or Military Court?
If I didn't know American culture better, I'd say, "you're kidding, right?"

The American court system has, for most of my life, had an appalling record of placing the rights and desires of those who want to harm others over the welfare of the people who are being harmed. A very short list of the accomplishments of American "justice," in and around Massachusetts:
  • Leeland Eisenberg, convicted rapist, released after his sentence in 2005, took hostages at a Clinton campaign office in 2007
  • Daniel Tavares, who killed his mother, was a violent prisoner, faced two charges of assaulting prison guards last year, was released on personal recognizance, and killed a newlywed couple
  • Michael "Stix" Addison, whose rap sheet shows that he started trying to kill someone when he was 16: violated parole, but remained free, and finally achieved his goal at age 26, when he shot a police officer
A catch-and-release policy for dangerous criminals isn't limited to the the New England states, and this deplorable practice has been going on for quite a while. For example, Lawrence Singleton cut a California teen's arms off in 1978 after raping her. He was sentenced to prison. It was pretty obvious that he was nuts. And, he was given treatment. He killed a prostitute in his home nine days after he was released from a psychiatric hospital. In fairness, note that Mr. Singleton's lawyer said that killing the prostitute was an accident. 'It could happen to anyone?' Besides, the teen survived, and Mr. Singleton served 8 years, 4 months of a 14-year-prison sentence for that assault.

Unlike the civilian court system, the American military seems to have retained the concept that people who hurt and kill Americans are not, by and large, very nice people, and should, in general, be stopped.

A military court seems a fairly obvious choice.
  • Military courts are seem less likely to make daft decisions about dangerous lunatics
  • There's a war on - It's an uncomfortable idea, but very much a fact
  • The defendants are, like it or not, very likely enemy combatants
I do understand the theoretical value of civilian courts: But this is a case where I am very concerned about how many lives may be lost, should American judges be allowed access to these cases.
Death Penalty?
On the other hand, I'm not in favor of capital punishment. For one thing, it's all too obvious that the judicial system can make mistakes. One example, this year, was the case of Steven Charles Phillips. He was the 15th person in Dallas County, Texas, exonerated by DNA testing since 2001. The rapist was a transient named Goodyear, who died in 1998. A "Dallas Morning News" article says, "Mr. Phillips had also pleaded guilty to eight related cases that authorities believe were committed by Mr. Goodyear. Mr. Phillips' attorneys say he pleaded guilty to the other crimes because he feared an even longer prison term after losing two jury trials."

I don't find as much fault in the American court system for this sort of mistake, as for the common-as-cockroaches 'mistake' of releasing dangerous felons. The courts are run entirely by human beings: And human beings sometimes make mistakes.

In Mr. Phillips' case, if he's cleared of all the charges, he may be released. That's one of the good things about prison sentences. They can be reversed, at least to an extent. No judge can give back the time lost, but at least someone wrongfully imprisoned can, later, be released.

If Mr. Phillips had been executed, I doubt that even the United States Supreme Court believes it could successfully order him released from death.

The important argument, for me, against the death penalty in America is my faith. I'm a Catholic, and there are some fairly clear statements about when it is okay to kill people, and when it isn't. (What follows is a layman's statement: I have no authority to speak for the Church.)

The Catholic Church values human life: "Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person--among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2270.)

A key word there is innocent. The Church does recognize that sometimes it is necessary to defend the innocent from others. "Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.

"If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2266, 2267.) [Emphasis is mine.]

I think a reasonable way to boil part of that down is this: If a country has no other way to protect its citizens, it is permitted to kill people who are a real threat to others. IF there is no other way.

I find it difficult to believe that the United States of America cannot keep malefactors behind bars. That it's moderately expensive and somewhat inconvenient, yes: impossible, no.

That the United States of America is unwilling to restrain dangerous individuals is obvious: but that's a topic for another day, and probably another blogger.

The point is this: America has the ability to restrain killers, and people who train killers. These people do not need to be killed.

One More Thing

If I'm against the death penalty, how can I possibly support the War on Terror?

"... For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2266.) This is related to the "just war" idea.

The United States does not control the internal affairs of Pakistan, Afghanistan, or even Iraq, now that the latter country has a mildly stable government of its own. If America did, it is possible that terrorism could be handled strictly as a law enforcement issue.

That's not the world we live in. America, and every other country threatened by terrorists, must sometimes use force to defend its people. And, I seriously doubt that a nice chat over tea would convince Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or any other leaders of terrorists, to stop what they're doing, and play nicely.

("The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" is a four-page online pamphlet made by United States bishops: More at

Related posts, on Islam, Christianity, Religion, Culture and the War on Terror.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.