Conservatives are struggling to get over their disappointment that the Obama administration captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged leader of the 2012 attack on our consulate in Benghazi, but don't think they can't come up with another way to argue that Barack Obama is screwing everything up. If there's one thing they're certain of, it's that Obama is weak, and while until this weekend he was too weak to nab Khattala, now he's too weak to do what needs to be done with him.
I'm pretty sure many on the right really wish we could torture Khattala, even if you can't say that in polite company anymore. In the absence of that, they'll demand that we take Khattala to Guantanamo, where presumably he will spill what he knows forthwith. Marco Rubio demanded that we "immediately" transfer him to Guantanamo. "In order to locate all individuals associated with the attacks that led to the deaths of four Americans, we need intelligence," said the senator, apparently under the impression that Guantanamo is the only place where interrogation can occur.
"We should have some quality time with this guy, weeks and months," said Lindsey Graham. "Don't torture him—but have some quality time."
"Obviously he should be put on trial," said John McCain. "I'd bring him to Guantanamo. Where else can you take him to?" Well, we can do with him exactly what we've done with hundreds of other terrorism suspects: try them in our civilian courts, and then put him in jail once he's convicted.
It's important to remember that Khattala isn't some high-ranking Al Qaeda official with intimate knowledge of every terrorist plot that might occur anywhere. He has his own local group in Benghazi. He may be a murderer, but he's not part of Al Qaeda. The intelligence he can offer is probably quite limited, in the same way that the owner of Joe's Burgers on Main Street won't be able to you what the McDonald's corporation's plans are.
That isn't to say that he shouldn't be interrogated—and the administration is doing that. Right now the guy's on a boat rolling around the ocean, where he's being questioned (this is a tactic of murky legality that the administration has used before). But now we're going to have another debate about the use of civilian courts to try terrorism suspects, one in which so many people seem to exist in a fantasy world in which the use of torture is still the official policy of the United States (like back in the good old days of the Bush administration) and military trials at Guantanamo are guaranteed to bring conviction, while civilian trials are just an escalator to acquittal.
But that's not true now, and it was never true. Here are some numbers for context, courtesy of the Miami Herald and Human Rights Watch. There have been a total of 779 prisoners held at Guantanamo since September 11, 2001. Around 600 were released, most by the Bush administration. The number convicted in military trials is...eight. That's right, eight. Since September 11, civilian criminal courts have convicted nearly 500 people in terrorism-related trials.
The idea that civilian courts just can't handle terrorism cases rests on a combination of ignorance and absurdity. But I think what it comes down to for those who advocate military tribunals is that they're somehow "tougher," and when it comes to terrorism, we just have to be "tough." Practical questions about things like conviction rates don't enter into it. Military courts are tough, civilian courts are wimpy, and that's all there is to it.
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