Monday, February 11, 2008

Crime and Punishment to Book End Bush Presidency

After a wobbly first nine months, the Presidency of George Walker Bush found its stride in the aftermath of the devastating terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The tough on crime Texas governor was suddenly in a comfort zone, promising to bring outlaws to justice and demanding power in the name of the victims. Everything else that has unfolded since has been far less effective. Whether waging war or rebuilding nations and cities, the Bush Administration has found itself haunted by evidence of incompetence and deception. Success alone has come from reinvoking the terror crimes of 9/11 and the possibility of redemptive justice.

According to reporting by William Glaberson in the New York Times, the administration has now set a course certain to assure that the last year of the Bush Presidency will be filled with a trial and almost certain death sentence against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and five other top Al Queda terrorists now being held at Guantanamo.

Military prosecutors have decided to seek the death penalty for six Guantánamo detainees who are to be charged with central roles in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, government officials who have been briefed on the charges said Sunday.

The officials said the charges would be announced at the Pentagon as soon as Monday and were likely to include numerous war-crimes charges against the six men, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the former Qaeda operations chief who has described himself as the mastermind of the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

In addition to bringing the horrors of 9/11 back into perspective in the middle of a new presidential campaign that was likely to focus on domestic priorities (like health care and jobs), the trial and litigation over the death sentences will generate other dynamics likely to foster Mr. Bush's image.

The death penalty is a practice that Mr. Bush practically made his signature act of governing during his governorship of Texas where he presided over more than 100 executions.

Even better, the death sentences are likely to be delayed by litigation and court interventions. Mr. Bush's style of executive leadership is a permanent protest against the constitution's separation of powers and fights with courts are a tonic to it.

The torture of Mohammed, whose water boarding by the CIA has been admitted, will divide the country over whether the human rights of terror suspects are as important as security for America (at least as defined by the President). Ironically this may prove a problem for likely Republican nominee John McCain who has long spoken out against the practice.

Update: See Steve Lee Myers analysis in the NYTimes for a similar suggestion that focusing public attention on the terrorist trials and on the legal niceties of whether it was ok to water-board and now execute them.

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