Monday, September 22, 2008

Terrorism, Security and Justice

On September 8, 2008, three men were convicted of conspiracy to murder in a high profile trial in London. The defendants in question, eight in total, were accused of planning the plot to blow up a number of trans-Atlantic flights with bottles of combustible liquids. This plot ushered in the era of restriction on liquids on airplanes and, at the time, was hailed as a successfully coordinated effort between British and US officials to capture terrorists before they could strike.
Despite the conviction, many officials in Britain were disappointed with the outcome of the trial. The defendants were not convicted of the most serious charge- conspiracy to blow up passenger jets over the Atlantic. Although British officials publicly praised the conviction of the men on the lesser charges, some security officials complained that US pressure to arrest the defendants prevented them from gathering compelling evidence that would have resulted in convictions of all the charges. American officials argued that quick action prevented the men from carrying out the attacks and saved hundreds of lives.

This trial brings up an interesting debate in the realm of national security and terrorism- are those who engage in terrorism best dealt with through military and/or intelligence actions, or through law enforcement and civilian courts?

The debate in the US has taken on a different characterization recently with the Supreme Court ruling on whether military trial procedures in Guantanamo were constitutional. Yet, the US also has a history of using civilian courts to convict terrorists, as with both the conviction of Ramzi Yousef, the alleged mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and the conviction of “homegrown” terrorists like Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Perhaps deciding how to punish and stop terrorists depends on the type of threat and the identity of the “terrorists” in question. In Britain, most of the men on trial were residents or citizens of the UK, though of immigrant roots. They carried out their preparations on British soil. This has a number of similarities to the case of Timothy McVeigh. Contrast that to the inmates in Guantanamo who were captured in Afghanistan during a military action and treated as enemy combatants. Should country of residence and citizenship be the dividing line between those who will be tried in civilian court and those who are sought and punished by other means?

It remains to be seen which method will be most effective in fighting terrorism. Are there differences between “homegrown” terrorists and those who plot the attacks thousands of miles away from their targets? Is military and/or covert action a necessity with some of these terrorists, or can the civilian law enforcement and judicial system bring them to justice? How can evidence be gathered and still be admitted in civilian court if intellegence is used to gather the information? Do issues of national security demand a higher level of secrecy, even in terrorism trials? And Finally, which method may be most useful to deterring terrorists before they commit their acts? Both methods are currently being pursued and perhps in time it will become clearer which may be a more effect means of keeping people safe from terrorist acts.

1 comment:

Robert Farley said...

This post is entirely to professional, sensible, and well-reasoned to deserve my commentary.