If you happened to be braving the bitter cold near the federal courthouse in Manhattan Tuesday morning, you probably didn't notice anything unusual. Although Osama bin Laden's son-in-law and alleged al Qaeda spokesman, Suleiman Abu Ghayth, was scheduled to appear at a hearing inside, there was no obvious sign of it, except maybe the Homeland Security van parked outside. Inside the fortified courthouse, a couple of extra guards manned a metal detector set up outside Judge Lewis Kaplan's courtroom, but they mostly looked bored since there was hardly anyone lining up to get in and not very much to do.
That's how it should be. Accused terrorists are tried all the time in U.S. federal courts with little extra burden on security officers and without incident. Only in the case of the five alleged perpetrators of the September 11 attacks did the plan cause such an uproar that their case was moved to another country.
The absurdity of that decision by the Obama administration (now cemented into law by Congress), becomes even more apparent when you go to that other country -- Cuba -- to watch the court proceedings there.
Held in the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, which due to a more than century-old lease the U.S. government considers U.S. territory, the 9/11 case is just getting started -- more than 12 years after the crime. The case has been bogged down in pretrial hearings over faulty Gitmo computer systems, inappropriate prison guard searches and government interference with attorney-client communications. Col. James Pohl, the military judge presiding over the trial, isn't likely to get to the merits of the government's case -- whether the five men accused are responsible for the murders of nearly 3,000 people in the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- for several more years. Those who survived the attacks and relatives and friends of those who didn't have been forced to wait a ridiculously long time to see the perpetrators brought to justice.
Meanwhile, in the civilian federal court on Tuesday, Suleiman Abu Ghayth -- accused of supporting the 9/11 attacks, among others -- is scheduled to face trial within a year of his arrest last February. Although Judge Kaplan is considering requests from both sides to delay the trial, even if granted, he indicated today, a delay would likely be only a few weeks.
Judge Kaplan is a 20-year veteran of the court who in 2011 sentenced al Qaeda conspirator Ahmed Ghailani to life in prison for his role in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. He is clearly eager to move the case along. Although he deferred ruling Tuesday on pending motions to depose witnesses and delay the trial, he promised he'd issue rulings very soon. That seems likely, given that he's already ruled on a slew of procedural motions in the case, including denying at least two motions to suppress evidence.
Like the Ghailani case before this one, the fear of chaos resulting from the trial of an al Qaeda member on U.S. soil has been wildly overblown. Instead, what we're seeing is careful, deliberate, and efficient workings of the U.S. federal court. It's exactly what we all deserve to see in the 9/11 case as well.