Last weekend, when an Air Force captain assigned the task of defending a man accused in taking part in the planning of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 started talking about the torture of his client by the United States government in Guantanamo, a government security officer cut off the audio feed so that journalists listening to the trial in a separate room could not hear what was being said. The captain had just started to say, “the torture that my client was subjected to by the men and women wearing the big boy pants down at the CIA makes it impossible…”, but then all that could be heard was white noise.
This censorship of information took place at a special kind of military trial, rather than the normal kind of criminal trial that American law before September 11, 2001 would suggest that an accused terrorist should be subjected to. The kind of military trial going on now was created after the crime, with new, lax rules explicitly crafted with the specific purpose of leading to the conviction of the accused in spite of problems with evidence. The rules were changed after the fact to deprive defendants accused of involvement in this particular crime of legal rights typically given during trials in the United States.
Given the loose new rules of justice at this military trial, it was part of the plan all along in these military trials to have journalists shoved aside into a separate space, and fed an audio feed of the trial, with a military security officer given a special button to cut the audio feed when a top secret piece of government information might be revealed. So, it sounds as if there was some sort of government secret about torture at the Guantanamo prisons that the military was afraid was about to be revealed by the Air Force captain serving as lawyer for the defendants.
But, yesterday, days after the event, the military released what it says is a transcript of what was said during the period of court censorship, when journalists could not hear the audio. The military asserts that the Air Force captain didn’t talk about torture at all during the censored part of the trial. The military claims that the Air Force captain was merely discussing court procedures with the judge.
Maybe that’s true. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it has no relevance on the defense of the accused. Maybe it does.
We can never know whether what the military says about this trial, and its censored moments, are true. There are reasonable grounds for doubt.
We have one organization, the U.S. military, running both the prosecution and the defense, as well as controlling the courtroom environment. That same organization, the U.S. military has been accused of torturing the defendants. It was that organization, the U.S. military, that chose to censor what appears to be discussion in the court about that torture. Now, that same organization, the U.S. military, is telling us that no discussion of torture took place in the censored period of the military trial.
They military, in this circumstance, is asking the American people to trust them that what it says about the trial is true. They’re asking us to accept it on faith.
Then again, the United States of America has gone a little bit insane since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The kind of justice that Americans would have considered unreasonable before the attacks now seems reasonable to many.
True reason, of course, does not change when confronted by fearful events. The standard for criminal justice in America is that conviction needs to take place only when it has stood against the test of reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt isn’t dictated by the fears of the moment, or by political expediency. It is doubt that is examined through reason.
For hundreds of years, reasoning minds in the United States agreed that a trial, long delayed, with testimony obtained through coercion and torture, in which the defense and the prosecution were part of the same team, and court records withheld from outside scrutiny, could not produce a trustworthy result. Now, we’re being expected to accept these methods as reliable and trustworthy, because of the fear that the crime of terrorism has provoked.
Many Americans have become so detached from an ordinary understanding of the reason of law that they are declaring that the accused deserve to be subjected to the military tribunals’ sloppy kangaroo court standards, because of the crimes that they have committed. They have a circular understanding of justice, in which the accused are punished for being guilty before they have been reasonably found, through trial, to be guilty.
It’s because the crimes of September 11, 2001 were so horrible that the trials of anyone accused of involvement in those crimes must meet the highest standards of justice. Instead, as this week’s mysterious courtroom censorship illustrates, the American justice system has been pursuing the lowest standards, seeking out vengeance rather than a reasonable outcome.