Attorney General Eric Holder has decided to put five of the worst suspected Al Qaeda operatives on trial in New York City for the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Human rights advocates were pleased, while conservatives, by and large, were outraged.
But the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed might be just the light drizzle before the hurricane.
What would happen if we captured Osama bin Laden alive?
It could well happen, and sooner than you think. The best minds in the counterterrorism world have long believed that bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the largely ungoverned frontier territories of Pakistan, near the Afghan border. The unprecedented Pakistani offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan is the single best piece of news in our long hunt for bin Laden.
Thousands of Pakistani troops nearby could force bin Laden to move in a hurry, resulting in his exposure and capture.
The political stakes would be astronomical, for both Republicans and Democrats.
The immediate advantage would be with President Barack Obama, of course. President George W. Bush got a momentary boost in the polls when Saddam Hussein was caught in his spider hole. Getting bin Laden could mean a 20-point jump in the polls for Obama.
Republicans would have to be very careful to be gracious about a capture of bin Laden during Obama’s presidency. In 2003, when Saddam Hussein was caught, Howard Dean’s poorly timed (if accurate) comment that it hadn’t made America any safer was taken as sour grapes at a moment when Americans felt like celebrating. Republicans would be very wise to uncork rhetorical champagne and spill praise on Obama, however much it pained them.
Some top Republicans made poorly timed (if accurate) observations that Obama didn’t deserve his Nobel Prize, comments that made them look like spiteful children. They will look 10 times worse if they denigrate the president when bin Laden appears on our TV sets in chains.
Would Obama deserve credit if bin Laden were captured? Outside of the farthest tea bag fringe of American politics (where the assumption will be that Obama, the secret Muslim terrorist, staged bin Laden’s capture), it is a no-brainer. If the recent offensive by the Pakistanis were even partially responsible for bringing bin Laden to justice, Obama’s role in encouraging that action would justly be noted.
Even if bin Laden is captured by random chance, the unwritten rules of American politics will result in Obama rising sharply in the polls. Just as presidents are often blamed for wars and recessions that they did not cause or start, they occasionally receive credit for events that they had little to do with.
But then would come one of the biggest decisions of Obama’s presidency: What do you do with bin Laden? Do you fly him back to the United States immediately and prepare him for a federal trial under U.S. law? Or a military trial? Where?
Do you convene an international tribunal and try to recapture some of the world unity that existed on Sept. 12, 2001? Al Qaeda has killed hundreds from Kenya to Spain, so such a trial would seem appropriate.
Yet an international tribunal would probably take the death penalty off the table, and that would be unacceptable to many Americans.
But there’s an even trickier question: Do you interrogate him in secret, as was done with Mohammed, before any trial? After all, we would expect him to have a lot of useful information about planned attacks.
Given Obama’s public disavowals of torture in any circumstance, harsh interrogation of bin Laden seems unlikely, for better or for worse. Republicans would be swift to accuse Obama of caring more about international public opinion than getting vital information out of the leader of Al Qaeda.
One can just picture Rudy Giuliani asking if bin Laden will be read his Miranda rights.
After the initial excitement of the capture wears off, these partisan attacks might well begin to work for the GOP.
So, as they prepare for the first trials of men who allegedly had a role in the terrible attacks of Sept. 11, administration officials might give a thought or two to how they would handle the question of justice for the greatest terrorist of all.
Jeremy D. Mayer is associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.
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