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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Weekly Muse
My humble opinion on current events

November 19, 2001

Kangaroo Courts?

Last Tuesday, President Bush announced that any non-citizen arrested in the U.S. or overseas he deems a terrorist can be tried by a military tribunal, bypassing civilian courts and Constitutional protections. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield would appoint each panel and set its rules and procedures. That includes level of proof needed for a conviction - it could be beyond a reasonable doubt or something less stringent. There would be no appeal or judicial review - the verdict of the panel stands, and the sentence, which could be death, is carried out. Only the President or Rumsfield could change the verdict or sentence. 

Bush promises a "full and fair trial" for any defendants and access to lawyers, probably a judge advocate, but many people still wailed about the decision. "A president of the United States has just assumed what amounts to dictatorial power to jail or execute aliens," huffed the normally reasonable William Safire. "We are letting George W. Bush get away with the replacement of the American rule of law with military kangaroo courts."

"End-Running the Bill of Rights," trumpeted a Washington Post editorial. Military trials "will erode throughout the world the image of America as a place where certain freedoms cannot be compromised." The Post, which winked at and excused President Clinton's law-breaking, is now worried that Bush's order undermines "the rule of law."

"The President's decision," harrumphed the ACLU, "is further evidence that the Administration is totally unwilling to abide by the checks and balances that are so central to our democracy." Even worse, the ACLU is "deeply disturbed." Not that!

As you might suspect, I consider such criticisms a tad overblown. The critics fail to recognize that we are at war, and terrorists are not your average criminal. They wear no uniform and declare allegiance to no country, so they're not soldiers. They are war criminals, committing unspeakable atrocities against unarmed and innocent civilians. They should be treated as such. 

It's also important to remember that this order applies only to non-citizens. No American citizen can be tried by a tribunal. This is important because it is generally acknowledged that non-citizens do not enjoy the full protection of liberties under the Constitution. No rights are being violated. 

Besides, there may not be any tribunals at all, even if we make the mistake of capturing bin Laden or his cohorts (as opposed to killing them). Bush may decide to try some in federal court. Or he may not. But I doubt it's a decision he'll make rashly. 

There is ample historical precedent. The U.S. has used military tribunals since the Revolutionary War. Most recently, after World War II, a little more than 100 German soldiers were tried and sentenced by American military tribunals. 

In 1942, eight German saboteurs entered the country with the purpose of blowing up railroad, bridges, malls, and other targets. They were armed with explosives, wore civilian clothing, and carried U.S. currency. After their arrest, President Roosevelt had them tried before seven U.S. Army officers. All eight were convicted and six executed. The other two received life in prison, because they ratted out their companions. The Supreme Court later ruled the trial constitutional, and nothing since then has contradicted or reversed that ruling.

The bottom line is this. These people are not petty criminals or American citizens. They are foreign aggressors who have committed an act of war against the United States.  

Happy Thanksgiving

On that happy note, I'd like to wish readers a happy and blessed Thanksgiving. 

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