Here in New York, the Obama Administration’s decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other Al Qaeda terrorists in the civilian justice system in downtown Manhattan has garnered plenty of well-earned criticism, including from New York’s leading anti-terrorism experts like Rudy Giuliani, Michael Mukasey (who handled the blind sheikh trial as a district judge before becoming President Bush’s third Attorney General) and Andrew McCarthy (who was one of the prosecutors), and Long Island Congressman Peter King. And not just from the Right; even arch-liberals like Daily News sportswriter Mike Lupica have weighed in against the decision. Now the people are being heard from, and while the polls as usual show some diversity of opinion, the public is deeply skeptical of this enterprise even before it gets underway, let alone after what promises to be many months of grandstanding by the terrorists, gridlock in lower Manhattan, possible setbacks in the prosecution and the hemmhoraging of scarce resources on the trial(s) (as my retired-NYPD dad put it: “there’s going to be plenty of overtime for the cops.”).
The critics’ bases for opposing a trial are numerous, and several of them are reviewed by Erick here. And the polls now show those criticisms are shared by a majority of the nation’s voters and a significant minority even in liberal New York City, with the rest uncertain.
To quickly summarize the case against the trials:
1] The trials are wholly unnecessary; the Administration is holding some enemy combatants without trial and trying others through the military commission system, thus conceding that it has alternatives. As a result, any risks, expenses or other downsides of the trials are being undertaken solely for the purpose of empty symbolism.
2] The trials risk disclosure of sensitive intelligence information and sources. This is the most significant objection of all.
3] The trials create a heightened risk or incentive for a terrorist attack/jailbreak effort in Manhattan.
4] The additional security required to guard against #3 will cost the federal and city governments a fortune, interfere with the administration of justice in a busy federal district and busy federal prison, add to the traffic and delays already extant in lower Manhattan, and place a great burden on the jurors, judge, and prosecutors.
5] The detainees, as they have shown in the past, are especially dangerous to guards, a problem that’s more acute when in transit or in civilian prisons than in a facility like Guantanamo that’s designed to house them.
6] The trials will give these extremists the opportunity to grandstand.
7] There is, inherent in civilian criminal trials and given the likelihood that the defense will seek to play politics with the trial, some risk of one or more acquittals or hung juries that would give a propaganda victory to the terrorists and destroy what little symbolic value the trials have if the defendants are remanded to custody after being acquitted.
8] There is a risk that, to guard against #7, rules and precedents governing criminal procedure will be distorted in ways that have lingering effects on the regular justice system.
9] Trying terrorists in civilian courts perversely rewards their war crimes; they have not earned the rights of either American citizens nor lawful combatants under international law, and should not be granted them.
Well, the polls are in, and the news should not be encouraging to the Administration. First, the Rasmussen poll, conducted nationally:
Fifty-one percent (51%) of U.S. voters oppose the Obama administration’s decision to try the confessed chief planner of the 9/11 attacks and other suspected terrorists in a civilian court in New York City.
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 29% of voters favor the president’s decision not to try the suspects by military tribunal at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba where they are now imprisoned. Nineteen percent (19%) are not sure whether it was the right decision or not.
Only 30% of Americans said suspected terrorists should have access to U.S. courts…
As Rasmussen notes from prior polls, “Most voters have consistently opposed moving any of the Guantanamo prisoners to prisons in the United States out of safety concerns.” And public awareness is high:
Seventy-five percent (75%) of all voters say they have followed news stories about the decision to try the suspected terrorists in a civilian court at least somewhat closely. Thirty-nine percent (39%) say they have been following very closely. Only six percent (6%) are not following the news about the decision at all.
Locally, the Marist poll of New York City residents (H/T) finds a small plurality of the overwhelmingly Democratic City in favor of the trials – but a significant group opposed, and a larger minority among New Yorkers than nationally who are concerned about the elevated security risks:
45% of residents think it’s a good idea to have the trial in New York City while 41% believe it’s a bad one. 14% just aren’t sure.
What about the risk of future terrorist attacks? Although 47% say the location of the trial will not affect the likelihood of another terrorist attack occurring in New York City, a significant proportion are concerned the trial will put a bull’s eye on the city. In fact, 40% believe having the trial in New York City will increase the possibility of another terrorist attack in the area. 7% think it will be less of a target, and another 6% are unsure about the implications of the trial for the city’s security.
The left-wing response to the criticisms of the trials has been to focus only on point #3 above and essentially throw a tantrum, accusing anyone concerned with the risk of an attack of either cowardice or fear-mongering. As I have explained at some length before, this is shtick, not argument, and especially ridiculous given some of the people making it. Thus, we have people like left-wing activist Greg Sargent getting so wrapped up in their own shtick that they try to spin the Rasmussen poll as a victory, even in the face of the public being against them on the bottom line:
[P]ublic opposition is not a response to all the lurid fearmongering we’ve heard from Rudy Giuliani and other diehard anti-terror warriors. It’s more rooted in a sense that the justice system isn’t a proper venue to prosecute terrorism, because it places suspected terrorists – symbolically, perhaps more than legally – on an equal footing with your run-of-the-mill suspected murderers….While a majority does oppose the trial, it appears that most Americans aren’t quite as fearful of it as Rep. Shadegg is.
Sargent further notes of the Marist poll: “Opposition to trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his co-conspirators in a New York court is almost entirely driven by old, white, and Republican voters.” Well, good thing none of those groups is a significant voting bloc, eh?
A few more such victories, as Phyrrus said, and Obama and his fans are finished.