Wednesday, May 12, 2010

US Courts Best For Terrorists

Shortly after noon, a vehicle with a hundred pounds of dynamite and five hundred pounds of cast iron shrapnel explodes at the corner of Wall and Broad Street in downtown Manhattan. 39 people are killed, hundreds more injured, and the stock market closes in a panic.

A prediction of things to come? No, for this act of terrorism took place almost 90 years ago, on September 16, 1920.

Nobody was ever arrested or convicted for the 1920 Wall Street bombing. A note in a mailbox a block away implicated anarchists. Comprised mostly of Italian immigrants, they were protesting poor labor conditions, capitalism, inflation and oppression by the federal government.

Their eloquent firebrand was one Luigi Galleani, who was deported to Italy in June of 1919 out of fear that he was part of a conspiracy to assassinate President Wilson. An anarchist, after all, had assassinated President William McKinley in 1901.

Galleani’s disciples included Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti, who were indicted five days before the Wall Street bombing, on September 11, on shaky charges of armed robbery and murder. Their subsequent convictions and executions in 1928 sparked anti-American protests around the world.

In 1917 Congress adopted the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to speak or write against our involvement in World War I. After anarchist bombings escalated, Congress adopted amendments prohibiting “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” That was followed by the Anarchist Act in 1918, which made it legal to evict any non-citizen for mere membership in an anarchist organization or possession of anarchist literature for the purpose of dissemination. Immigration policies also shifted preferences away from southern Europe in favor of northern Europeans.

Anarchists reacted in 1919 by sending at least 38 package bombs to prominent judges and public officials who had supported or enforced the deportation laws. One target of two bombings was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who responded by rounding up over 10,000 immigrants in what became known as the Palmer Raids. Nearly 500 immigrants were eventually deported, and terrorism in the name of anarchy has gradually abated.

Today we would recoil at the manifest violations of free speech and due process. But all this took place in an era before Miranda warnings, court-appointed legal counsel, international human rights treaties and civil rights reforms. The American Civil Liberties Union, in fact, was founded during this time in an effort to protect the rights of those threatened with deportation. There were undoubtedly abuses when viewed through the tinted glasses of history; as at today’s Guantanamo prison, some might have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong ancestry.

But it’s notable that the American judicial system was able to deal with the crisis without resorting to military tribunals. Although judges and prosecutors and juries faced intimidation and reprisal from foreign nationals, there was a consensus that civilian courts were the proper forum for criminal acts. While the United States had effectively “declared war” on anarchists, no state of war had been declared between the United States and Italy. There was also no indication the weak Italian government was encouraging the terrorist acts – in fact, Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in the 1920s was in part an effort to stifle anarchists in Italy.

Military tribunals are intended to try members of enemy forces during wartime. Even during the Civil War, in most cases military tribunals were not used where civilian courts were still functioning. Simply declaring war on terrorism, as we have declared war on drugs and war on poverty, isn’t enough to invoke their use in lieu of civilian courts on simple criminals, regardless of the gravity of their crimes.

Finally, military tribunals aren’t a guarantee of maximum punishment. Of the 177 Nazi officials tried by American military judges, only 12 death sentences were issued.

Sacco and Vanzetti, fairly tried or not, were tried and convicted in a Massachusetts state court. The foreign nationals who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 were tried and convicted in federal court. The underwear bomber, who tried to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day, has been arraigned in federal court. Faisal Shahzad tried to set off a truck bomb in Times Square this month, and the courts there are fully competent to try him for doing so.

To imply that these constitutional courts are somehow incompetent or insufficient to try these individuals is an insult to one of the three pillars of our federal government – the very role model we urge other nations to embrace. To do anything less means the bad guys win – that our system of government isn’t worthy of respect. Let’s not lower our standards to their level.