mercredi, mars 29, 2006

Justices delayed will not be denied

It isn't always fair to judge a man by the company he keeps. But when a chorus of his terrorist buddies start hurling brickbats at the accused, one Zacarias Moussaoui, such judgments seem justified. "He had dreams of flying a plane into the White House" said a South Asian terorist known as Hambali in Wednesday's New York Times. In Hambali's words, he was known on the street as "not right in the head and having a bad character." Even his own defense attorney termed him dangerous. The question confronting a jury in an Alexandria, Virginia courtroom this week is: what exactly was he guilty of? Is he really a major player in the September 11 attacks that killed thousands and left an apparently indelible scar on the American psyche? Or is he a lower level operative so delusional or so driven by hatred of the United States that he will confess to acts for which the punishment could all too quickly be death? Call me a coward, but I am very glad that I don't have to serve on that jury. The case was already complicated by Moussaoui's theatrics and obstructionism and by allegations of unprofessional behavior by a lawyer connected to the prosecution. On Monday, Moussaoui's "admission" that he was pretty much guilty as charged have put the jury in the almost impossible position of trusting the word of a man whose words have shown he cannot be trusted or of believing the testimony of a group of unsavory characters linked to various other acts of terrorism. Yet Americans who have observed this trial from afar can be pretty confident that however much the defendant might have tried to subvert the rule of law, justice will prevail. As obnxious and boastful as he appears to be, Moussaoui has had a hearing worthy of the best the American legal system can offer. Not far away, in a Washington D.C. , courtroom, the nation's highest court gathered to hear testimony in an even more important case. The topic at hand was whether Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for Osama Bin Laden, could be tried by a military commission, as the Bush administration wants to do. But the subtext to the defenses layered argument about the validity of military commissions and the government's case for commissions was the fact that the prerogatives of the Supreme Court, and of other lower courts, are being challenged by this administration in ways that would have been unthinkable before the bombing of the Twin Towers, the war in Afghanistan, and our invasion of Iraq. Conveniently designated as enemy combatants (who also, conveniently, don't fall under the international laws of the Geneva Convention) many prisoners taken abroad have been locked away for years without access to lawyers or the possibility of a trial. We don't even know, in many cases, why they are being held. In some cases, they may very well be innocents picked up in the wrong place at the wrong time. It may be too late for the Supreme Court to override the unfettered license this administration and Congress have taken with our legal system. But judging by the sharp tone of the questions to Solicitor General Paul Clement in the Hamdan hearing, recent actions by Congress to remove legal jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay detainees from the courts may have finally provoked the Justices to righteous anger. We can only hope so. A country which prides itself on an exemplary legal system is shamed when men are held for years without access to justice. A nation which advocates for human rights all over the world looks hypocritical when it treats its opponents as unworthy of the right to challenge their own detention in a court of law. We have done an exemplary job of giving an accused terrorist a hearing and trial. But our efforts haven't been solely, or even mostly, in the services of the man even his friends call unbalanced, unreliable and kind of crazy. No. We have done it so we can sleep at night, knowing that our justice system, though imperfect, is one of the best in the world. More than he deserves? Maybe. More than we deserve? Absolutely not.

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