Justice and Therapy

Surely there are legitimate differences of opinion about using civilian courts or military tribunals to try the terrorists who planned 9/11, but it is hard to separate them out from the powerful underlying emotional issues.  In the reactions to the Attorney General announcement of his plan to try them in Federal Court in New York, it is easy to detect those who fear being re-traumatized and those who hope the trials will enable them to put their fears behind them.  (See, The New York Times, “Trial Venue Leaves 9/11 Families Angry or Satisfied.”)

“It’s absolutely disgusting,” said a woman whose son died in the attack. She said of Mr. Mohammed, “He’s going to be, what, two blocks from ground zero, where he can see his handiwork and mock those he murdered.”  She started crying. “Every day I get up and know I’ll never see my son again,” she said. “This is just a smack in his face.”

Another woman who lost her husband in Tower 2, was among scores of relatives who had signed a letter opposing regular criminal trials for them.  “It’s totally unfair,” she said. “Why do we have to constantly relive this? When do we get to be at peace? They should be hung.”

On the other hand, many hope the trials will offer closure:  “Let them come to New York,” said a retired deputy chief of the New York Fire Department, whose son died in the attack. “Let them get on trial. Let’s do it the right way, for all the world to see what they’re like.”

There is no neutral place in this story.  As someone who works downtown said:   “it’s going to be very rough on some people. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it.”

For those whose losses are less great, how much can the legal issues be separated from the political meaning of the event. There are those who see the trials as a means to repair the embarrassment and humiliation of Guantanamo, and restore our image as a nation of laws.  The New York Times editorialized that the decision was, “a bold and principled step … toward repairing the damage wrought by former President George W. Bush with his decision to discard the nation’s well-established systems of civilian and military justice.”  (See “A Return to American Justice.”)

Then, of course, there are those who emphasize that we locked in a mortal struggle with a virulent enemy.  Commentators in The Wall Street Journal derided the plan as “show trials,” and John Yoo, the Justice Department official who helped design and justify Bush’s policies on torturing detainees, refers to them as “an intelligence bonanza for al Qaeda.”  (See, “The KSM Trial.”)  In their view, we cannot afford to offer terrorists the advantages of fairness and due process.

As Justice, blindfolded, tries to pick her way across the rubble of our emotional landscape, can she even find a place to stand?