Jewish World Review July 23, 2002 / 14 Menachem-Av 5762

Thomas Sowell

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Two trials -- and future trials | While much attention has been focussed on the trial of American Taliban John Walker Lindh, another trial halfway around the world may be more relevant to our own future. This was the trial in Pakistan of terrorists who killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The killers were convicted and sentenced to death, after which one of them said: "We'll see who will die first, me or the authorities who have arranged the death sentence for me."

Those who are preoccupied with whether such cutthroats are comfy in Guantanamo might spare a few moments to consider what it would mean if the American criminal justice system has to put international terrorists on trial. First of all, the killers of Daniel Pearl would never have been convicted here as soon as they have been in Pakistan, much less be executed as soon as they are likely to be in Pakistan.

The terrorist threat to the court that convicted them is nothing new, though its implications for future trials of future terrorists here are chilling. There was already a foretaste of the problems when the original World Trade Center bombers of 1993 were tried under extraordinary security, precisely because of the risk of terrorist retaliation against judge, jury and prosecutors.

How many judges, juries and prosecutors will be able to stand up to threats to themselves and their families from terrorist networks with a record of ruthlessness and a long trail of blood? Why should they even have to operate under such pressures?

Do we really want these organized bands of international murderers tried under our criminal justice system, with all its elaborate technicalities and interminable delays? Do we want to have these homicidal fanatics using our courtrooms as propaganda forums, with their lawyers spouting off on talk shows day in and day out, putting the survivors of their victims through additional anguish?

More important than that, was our criminal justice system ever designed for what are essentially enemy troops? We never threw open our courtroom doors to captured Nazi prisoners of war in World War II, much less give them access to our press.

The fact that current terrorists are enemy troops without uniforms means that they are entitled to even less protection than the uniformed troops covered by the Geneva Convention. None of the rights established by that convention apply to combatants out of uniform, who have long been summarily shot.

Objections are sure to be made by those in our country who have no conception of the realities of war, as well as by hand-wringers who mistake their own squeamishness for higher morality, rather than reckless irresponsibility that can cost fellow Americans their lives.

Whatever the legal status of captured terrorists under our current laws, Congress has the authority to make new laws, in order to make it unmistakably clear that Osama bin Laden et al are wartime enemies, not peacetime criminals. These terrorists have themselves openly declared war on us, even if the countries which harbor and abet them have not formally done so.

Can Congress spare time from rehashing the past to legislate for the future? We might hope so, but this is an election year, after all. The votes of mush heads who want to give "rights" to those who are organized internationally for the express purpose of murdering us are still votes -- a fact which politicians are unlikely to ignore in an election year.

But perhaps those of us who are optimists can hope that sanity will return after the November elections and that laws will be passed then to make it unmistakably clear that enemy combatants are to be treated as enemy combatants, not American citizens. Those who join enemy armies should automatically lose their citizenship and the rights that go with it.

We don't want to leave enough ambiguity in existing laws to allow liberal judges who strain to find reasons to turn criminals loose to do the same with members of international terrorist organizations.

Thank heaven American Taliban John Walker Lindh was not tried in the 9th Circuit. By now he might be not only walking the streets of America scot-free but also suing the government and making nightly appearances on the talk-show circuit.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.


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© 2002, Creators Syndicate