It’s show trial time!

by Alexander Cockburn

You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but President Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, have got nearer than most to pulling it off. A week ago, Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators will soon go on trial in federal court in New York for planning the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After a week’s uproar, it’s fair to conclude that this was smart politics on the part of the Obama team. The fact that Holder, a man with famously sensitive political antennae, told the press that political considerations played “no part” in his decision only buttresses this judgment. The prime function of all US attorneys general is to loyally undertake the political requirements of their president.

The scenario envisaged by Obama, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and Holder is presumably that somehow a jury of unprejudiced citizens will be convened, and ultimately — hopefully, sometime before the election of 2012 — at least Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will step into the execution chamber, thus vindicating Obama’s oft-advertised commitment to track down the perps of 9-11 and kill them. So eager is Obama to underline this point that last Friday, he declared in Japan that those offended by the trial will not find it “offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.” This remark came right after his assertion that the trial would be “subject to the most exacting demands of justice.” Realizing that the latter remark might be construed by some pettifogging civil libertarians as prejudicial to a fair trial, Obama then added that he was “not going to be in that courtroom. That’s the job of the prosecutors, the judge and the jury.”

So, in this prospectus, even if the Great War on Terror does not prosper in by Alexander Cockburn Afghanistan, it will proceed columnist satisfactorily in execution chambers here in the Homeland, with the possible lagniappe of Maj. Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, also getting a lethal injection after conviction in a military court.

It’s certain that the legal team mustered to defend KSM and the other four will be reviewing mountains of documents amassed by the prosecution, setting forth the evidentiary chain that led to the indictments of the Ground Zero Five. Of course, most of these will no doubt be classified top secret, to be reviewed by defense lawyers only under conditions of stringent security, but it’s a safe bet that enough will be leaked to portray the Bush administration and Republicans in general in a harshly unflattering light, ignoring profuse indications of the unfolding conspiracy.

For their part — though the smarter among them may worry about disclosures of Bush and Cheney’s incompetence or worse — the Republicans also exult at the opportunity offered them by Holder’s decision to savage the Obama administration as soft on terror by the mere fact of hauling KSM and the others into a US courtroom, as opposed to giving them a drumhead trial by military “commission” outside the jurisdiction and dispatching them without the contemptible procedures of a formal trial inside the borders of the United States.

Memories of the OJ Simpson jury trial and the Verdict of not guiltybeyond a reasonable doubt are a strong undercurrent here. In many ofthe berserk commentaries from the right this last week, one can smellthe panic and fear that somehow a slimeball defense attorney in theJohnny Cochran mold will dupe a jury (composed, remember, of peoplesolemnly swearing they have an open mind on the case) into letting KSMand the others slip off the hook and stride from the courtroom, freemen.

Of course,there’s not the remotest chance of that, though it is true that asingle eccentric juror could hang the jury, necessitating a retrial.And if the jury “hangs” on the death penalty, there is no do-over, anda life sentence is imposed.

Nodoubt, the Ground Zero Five will have accomplished and dedicatedattorneys. There are scores of trial lawyers itching to step intohistory as intrepid defenders of due process and the requirements of aproper trial. They will urge dismissal, on grounds that a fair trial isimpossible, that the evidence was obtained under torture, that theconstitutional requirement of a speedy trial has been flouted, that theshielded identities of the informants providing the prosecution’sevidence similarly flout the defendants’ right to confront theiraccusers.

They will offer these and scores of other persuasive arguments, and it is impossible to imagine they will prevail.

Theliberal left is appreciative of Holder’s decision, too, since it takesprosecution of KSM and his supposed co-conspirators out of the hands ofthe awful military “commissions.” Anthony Romero, executive director ofthe American Civil Liberties Union, called the announcement “anenormous victory for the rule of law.” Actually, it was demonstrably apartial victory since that same Friday, Holder simultaneously announcedthat a military commission will try five others, also being held inGuantánamo, including Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused ofplanning al-Qaida’s 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen.

Delighted,too, must be Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has already declared he exultsat the prospect of the execution chamber and the martyrdom it willbring, preluded by the platform offered by the trial. But perhaps evenmore delighted than KSM are the beleaguered newspapers of New York towhom Holder’s announcement has came like a snort of methamphetamine upthe nose of a fading tweaker: Ahead lie months of searing headlines,blood-curdling editorial howls for vengeance in the Post and the Daily News, plus graver but copious coverage in the New York Times.

Ofcourse, there are those who gravely lament the impending spectacle, thefakery of judicial “impartiality,” the pompous sermons about the ruleof law, the hysteria, the howls for vengeance. Bring them on, say I.Let’s face it: We could do with some drama and American political lifeis at its most vivid amid show trials. Their glare discloses the largerpolitical system in all its pretensions and its disfigurements. Theshow trial is as American as cherry pie, as the former Black Panther H.Rap Brown — currently serving life without the possibility of parole inthe Supermax in Florence, Colo. — famously said about violence.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. Copyright 2009 Creators.Com