On Friday the 13th, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators will be tried in federal court in New York. This is a vast improvement over the military kangaroo courts of the Bush administration, and will help to restore America's image in the world with regard to human rights and the rule of law.
And this is no mere bleeding-heart perspective. In practical terms, the U.S. federal court system has a proven track record of effectively prosecuting complex terrorism cases. On the other hand, says Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program Director for Human Rights Watch, "The military commissions at Guantanamo are simply not up to the task."
Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First, summed up the advantages of this move as follows: "The victims of 9/11 and the American public deserve to see justice done, and the best way to achieve that is by prosecuting these men in a credible criminal justice system where the focus will be on their culpability, not on the legitimacy or fairness of the proceedings. Moving these cases out of military commissions and into the federal courts is smart counter-terrorism strategy. It treats the perpetrators as the criminals they are and deprives them of the warrior status they crave. This is an important distinction and will help thwart their ability to recruit others to their cause."
But, while this may indeed deprive the defendants of the warrior status they crave, it might also grant them the martyr status that they crave even more. While Holder got it right in moving the trials to the federal court system, he got it wrong when he announced that he will instruct prosecutors to seek the death penalty in these cases.
Terrorists will not see a death sentence as punishment, they will see it as a victory. Furthermore, rather than serve as a deterrent, it could backfire and serve as another recruiting tool for al-Qaeda. After all, isn't the promise of lavish heavenly rewards what motivates so many terrorists to fight to the death for their cause in the first place?
The prospect of rotting for decades in an American supermax prison would surely have a much different effect on a would-be terrorist.
Therefore, I strongly urge Attorney General Holder and the federal prosecutors in these cases to rethink their penalty strategy. If convicted, these defendants deserve true punishment, not a glorious death.