We've heard this song before. The religious rants and political taunts from the terror big shots at Guantanamo Bay, whose arraignment Thursday devolved into something just short of chaos, were eerily similar in tone and tenor to the ramblings and rifts of Zacarias Moussaoui, the once-upon-a-time "20th hijacker." Moussaoui was tried on terror conspiracy charges in federal court in Virginia in 2006, fought (but failed) to represent himself, and took every opportunity before and during his trial to trash America, its justice system and the war on terror.
Clearly, other al Qaeda captives have gotten the memo: when you emerge from the darkness of interrogation and isolation and finally get your day in the sun, make your religious and political points and ideological even at the expense of your legal ones. The strategy has been consistent. First, try to get rid of the court-appointed American lawyers (who would muddle through on procedure and technicalities). Then, rail against the system, your captors, and Western Civilization, all the while praising Islam. And make sure to express a lack of concern for martyrdom by proclaiming you are ready for capital punishment.
Moussaoui did it first-for nearly four years from 2002 to 2006. And if he were able to read the papers today (he isn't, such is his state of life confinement at the Supermax facility in Florence, Colo.) I suspect he'd be delighted and not a little satisfied to discover that the fellow who "fired" him from the 9/11 plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, nevertheless employed Moussaoui's own terror-trial tactics. The former told the judge he was ready to die. So did the latter. The former mocked prosecutors. So did the latter. The former trashed America. So did the latter.
"My [legal] team may be the best team, I understand that," Mohammed said in military court Thursday, "but I'm not looking at this from a legal view but a religious view. Their president, George Bush, waged war in Afghanistan and Iraq and they are still killing there." Cue to Ramzi Binalshibh, another high-level al Qaeda operator, who offered his own monologue Thursday. "I've been seeking martyrdom for five years," he said. "I tried for 9/11 to get a visa, but could not. I tried to get a visa. If this martyrdom happens today, so be it. God is great, God is great, God is great."
Aziz Ali, another one of the terror suspects, was blunter before his accusers. "After five years of torture," he said, it "doesn't make any sense that a court brings to justice after five years … that's a very shameful … don't know how the American people would consider it. The American government maintains they are human rights … this government failed to treat me as a human for five years … my conscience does not allow me to participate in any such rulings, or legal things." Cue the harps.
Thursday's outbursts and in-court mayhem (judge to suspect: "What part of 'sit down' do you not understand?") is little compared to the diatribes that Moussaoui launched before he was convicted. But, remember, this was only an arraignment for the five suspects-an arraignment, you should know, that generated not a single "not guilty" plea. If these un-fab five continue at this rate for sheer volume alone they will re-write the playbook that Moussaoui took four topsy-turvy years to write.
Like the terror detainees on Thursday, Moussaoui also tried to represent himself. Then he tried to plead guilty. When his guilty plea was rejected he tried again. He wrote legal brief after brief until they were blocked from public view. When the government's case against him went lame he saved it by testifying "on his own behalf" in the most incriminating fashion. There were tricks. There were ploys. It was a game to him; he smiled through it all. And the whole thing is happening again, writ large, in the most important military trials in a half century.
Taking a step back from the emotions here, it's not hard to comprehend the logic behind the al Qaeda "litigation strategy." These suspects understand that they are going to be convicted pretty much no matter what they say in their own defense. They know the deck is stacked against them despite the efforts of civil libertarians to ensure more procedural fairness in these proceedings. They know they almost certainly will be executed and, indeed, they appear to welcome it; that's what happens in holy wars. So, like Moussaoui before them, they are going to extract their pound of PR flesh against America.
The relentless outbursts and tirades in military court Thursday - Saddam-Hussein-like at times for their intermittent courtesies - explain better than any code of military justice why the Bush administration fought so hard for so many years to bury these tribunals behind a wall of secrecy. The Pentagon and White House knew, even before Moussaoui's screen play, and surely before Thursday, that trying bitter terrorists in open court would turn the trials into political theatre, or religious sermons, or just another battlefield in the war of cultures.
Political trials are at least as old as Socrates. And what the al Qaeda detainees have figured out is that their last, best hope of individually damaging their hated enemy or concomitantly rallying their cowering supporters, is to refuse to play along with, or just plain mock, any and every form of American justice. It's all they have left to do, this war by another means - a jurisprudential jihad. At least the current crop of alleged terrorists isn't yet doing a Nuremburg Number and claiming they were just following orders.