Taking the war on terrorism too far

Military tribunals: Can we hold ourselves to a lesser standard than we've set for others?

November 19, 2001

AFTER SEPT. 11's horrifying attacks, defending ourselves against terrorism is understandably the nation's top priority. Even so, President Bush's plan to use secret military tribunals to try suspected terrorists shows a disturbing disdain for the rights of the accused and the rule of law that could undermine the values we seek to defend in Afghanistan and around the world.

Under the executive order Mr. Bush signed last week, any noncitizen the president suspects of terrorism, or of harboring or abetting terrorists, would be prosecuted in a court whose procedures ignore many of the due process standards that govern civilian courts.

Hearsay and illegally obtained information could be admitted as evidence. Proceedings could be held in secret. Defendants would have no right to choose their attorneys. Military officers would serve as judge and jury, and guilty verdicts, even death sentences, could be applied even if one-third of the officers disagreed. No civilian court could review the verdict or the president's decision to try the case in a military court.

Vice President Dick Cheney assures us that defendants will receive "a fair trial," but the rules sound more like those governing kangaroo courts in totalitarian states than anything we would recognize as a fair judicial proceeding.

Such trials would be unworthy of a country that boasts of its reverence for human rights and the rule of law. Indeed, the United States has regularly criticized countries such as Turkey and Peru, which have waged long battles against terrorism, for trying suspected terrorists in secret courts that resemble those the president would create. Can we hold ourselves to a more lenient standard and expect the world to take our vaunted principles seriously?

Throughout the nation's history, we have in many times of great threat compromised the freedoms we treasure. But in retrospect, episodes such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the witchhunts for Communists at the Cold War's zenith appear shameful.

On the other hand, cases such as the Nuremberg trials, in which we upheld the rule of law despite great stress and provocation, remain wellsprings of national pride.

In fighting terror, just as in prosecuting Nazi leaders, we need to uphold the values that distinguish us from our enemies.

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