Friday, November 19, 2010

The Ghailani verdict

"The face of the embassy had sheared off in great concrete slabs. Dead people still sat at their desks. The tar-covered street was on fire and a crowded bus was in flames. Next door, the Ufundi Building, containing a Kenyan secretarial college, had completely collapsed. Many were pinned under the rubble, and soon their cries arose in a chorus of fear and pain that would go on for days.... The toll was 213 dead...; 4,500 were injured, more than 150 of them blinded by the flying glass. The ruins burned for days."
Thus Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, describing the aftermath of the August 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi. There's no question that this and the bombing of the embassy in Dar es Salaam were reprehensible acts. Ayman al-Zawahiri had an al-Qaeda operative throw a stun grenade into the embassy courtyard in Nairobi, thereby drawing people to the windows. Wright notes: "One of the lessons Zawahiri had learned from his bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad three years before was that an initial explosion brought people rushing to the windows, and many were decapitated by flying glass when the real bomb went off." (Looming Tower, p.307)

Despite the depraved character of these acts, however, it's not clear that the conviction of Ahmed Ghailani in New York federal district court on only one count (of conspiracy) as opposed to 200-some counts matters very much. As it is, he may well get a life sentence. Meanwhile Zawahiri, the mastermind of the operations, continues to reside ... somewhere (maybe North Waziristan, maybe not...).

The real issue that should be under discussion is why it has proved so difficult to close Guatanamo Bay (a myopically reluctant Congress deserves a fair amount of blame, no doubt), not the issue of whether detainees should be tried in civilian courts or military tribunals. That has already been debated ad nauseum, positions have hardened, and arguably the main beneficiaries of the entire discussion have been the lawyers, legal analysts, and other talking heads whom it has kept employed. When the definitive history of this whole episode is written, complete with endless litigation, the Supreme Court striking down the original military tribunals legislation, Congress rewriting and re-passing it, etcetera, not to mention the meager results to date -- unless I'm forgetting something, exactly one detainee so far has completed the military tribunal process, pleading guilty in a plea deal [added later: I am forgetting something; it's more than one] -- it will go down as one of the more monumental wastes of resources spawned by the 'war on terror'. It is hard to avoid the feeling that there had to have been a better way than this drawn-out mess. The British government has even concluded that it must pay compensation to several British citizens who were held in Guantanamo. And the talking heads on American TV go on discussing this is in little amnesiac bites, failing to see the larger picture and failing to remind people that they have been having these same factitious debates for years. All in all, a rather appalling spectacle.

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