Show Trials and Real Trials

So a federal jury has acquitted an alleged terrorist of all but one count. And Republicans are screaming foul. We should try all alleged terrorists at Guantanamo in front of military commissions. Then they’d be convicted and we could all sleep at night.

From the criticism it seems that what’s wrong with the American judicial system is that we don’t do show trials. It’s actually possible for an American judge or jury to conclude that the prosecutor got it wrong, that a defendant isn’t guilty. It’s actually possible in America that having the right to an attorney and a jury of one’s peers can mean a just, fair and accurate decision.

Do terrorists deserve real trials. I was actually asked that on television. Surely terrorists are not entitled to real trials, lawyers, witnesses and the like. Lock ‘em up. Except then, how do we know we got the right folk? That’s what trials determine. How do we know that we haven’t made things worse by locking up innocent people?

Of course there is a part of the world where they do show trials. The Soviet Union and Communist China were famous for show trials. The trial was the opportunity for Stalin and Mao to make an example of someone and scare everyone to death. The show trials helped to prop up the regime.

While in namby-pamby America we actually require proof, and test it with other witnesses and cross-examination and opportunity to subpoena evidence and we protect the independence of judges and juries. Somewhere in the world there are people who admire the fact that we hold real trials, where conviction means the jury was convinced. Somewhere in the world there are people who don’t think it is coddling criminals to give them a real trial, not a show trial.

To attack the independence of the judiciary, to attack the judicial system because it strives to be careful, fair and accurate, is to attack the very foundations of freedom, as far too many people in this too often cruel world know all too well. The people who have no patience for justice are in fact the greatest threat to America, the most disloyal, far more dangerous than the immigrants they blame for everything.

We used to call communists with their show trials and totalitarian governments “reds” and conservatives slandered liberals as “pinkos.” It’s beginning to seem apropos that the networks called all the Bush states “red.” Some of those who fly the Republican banner are beginning to seem more like pinkos all the time.

 — This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 23, 2010.


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