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Column: Terrorists Should Face Civilian Courts

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
By Clarence Page
Chicago Tribune Columnist

WASHINGTON — Resistance to political influence is a virtue in a good attorney general. Tone deafness to politics is not, especially when the public fails to understand the virtue in what you’re doing.

That appears to be why, as much as he prefers a civilian trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Attorney General Eric Holder has backpedaled just enough to say that he is open to a military tribunal.

In an interview published Feb. 15 in The New York Times, he said, “You have to be flexible.” That’s true, if you can avoid tying yourself up in knots.

Holder and President Barack Obama appear to be bending to the relentless winds of opinion polls and conservative politicians. They may not have much choice. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina has introduced a bill in the Senate to cut off funding for criminal trials related to Sept. 11. He hopes to force cases like Mohammad’s into the military commissions that the Bush administration hastily organized at Guantanamo after the 2001 attacks.

It is easy to understand why our military is a sentimental favorite as a go-to place for handling terrorists. But those who root for the military commissions in Guantanamo should note a few things. The FBI, Justice Department and our federal courts have a better track record for effectiveness, constitutionality and appropriately tough sentencing than Team Obama’s political critics give them credit.

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