The Great Debate

The case for letting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed live

What should be done with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? If the Defense Department is to be believed, the chief planner of the 9/11 attacks on America is guilty of mass murder and crimes against humanity. Even if the evidence elicited by waterboarding him 183 times is void, his declaration in 2002 that “I was responsible for the 9/11 Operation from A to Z” should ensure conviction.

In addition to the 9/11 attacks that killed 2,973, he is credited with commissioning shoe-bomber Richard Reid to down a transatlantic jetliner laden with 300 passengers; planning the 1993 attempt to fell the Twin Towers, the Bali nightclub bombing that killed 200 and a bomb attack in Istanbul in 2003 that killed 60; as well as plots to assassinate Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton and to demolish the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. For those who would argue Mohammed is a war combatant rather than a dangerous psychotic, it should also be noted that he personally sawed off the head of the American reporter Daniel Pearl.

Mohammed and his co-conspirators face the death penalty, but it is by no means certain the prosecution will ask for it. There are a number of practical reasons Mohammed should instead live out his days buried in the vaults of a maximum security prison. He desperately wants to end his days of idle impotence and emerge as an inspirational figure in the Islamist war against the West. “This is what I wish, to be a martyr for a long time. I will, God willing, have this, by you,” he explained in 2008. He would be sooner forgotten alive than dead; just think of Charles Manson.

Moreover, Mohammed remains a key source for understanding al Qaeda’s modus operandi and its next moves. He has been spilling the names and whereabouts of sleeper cells, and it was his information that led to the discovery and death by Navy SEAL of Osama bin Laden. Better alive and singing than taking his secrets to the grave.

Demanding the death penalty would also entail a far longer trial, giving Mohammed more opportunities to have his remarks in court relayed to his followers. A capital sentence would open up a lengthy avenue of appeals, keeping him and his murderous creed in the headlines. Asking for life imprisonment would cut that short.

Learning the wrong lessons from 9/11

By Michael Ignatieff
The opinions expressed are his own.

One of the tasks we ask government to perform is to think the unthinkable.

Before 9/11, we may have allowed ourselves to be cynical about Western governments and their leaders, but we took it for granted that, faced with rising terrorist threats, they were not just hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

It turned out that nobody was.

The intelligence community saw warning lights flashing, but nobody took preventive action. Then airport security failed. Then the jets failed to scramble. Institutions that were supposed to protect us were asleep. In an instant, we discovered that no one was looking out for us.

The fire crews, the police and the emergency medical service teams who were called to the scene that September morning tried to make up for the failure of institutions with raw courage. The men and women in uniform who climbed upward into the fire displayed that virtue beyond measure or praise. But courage is no substitute for sovereigns that fail.

Rebuilding America

By Stephen Flynn and Eddie Rosenstein
The opinions expressed are their own.

In the ten years since 9/11, the nation’s response to the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon have been dissected and debated constantly. But one thing that hasn’t received enough attention is the effort we have taken in the intervening years to build a stronger, more resilient America for future generations.

As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in Washington at the 9/11 Tenth Anniversary Summit on September 8, 2011, “Our primary purpose today must be to look forward. [While] the perpetrators of 9/11 were obsessed with events that took place in the past, Americans always look to the future.”

Periodically, things will go very wrong. Risk and danger are inescapable facts of life. Resilience — a concept that has always defined America in times of crisis — applies not only to our response to terrorism but in our individual responses to crises large and small in our lives and in our communities.

The danger of symbols

By Peter Baumann and Michael W. Taft
The opinions expressed are their own.

Ten years ago this Sunday, 19 madmen used commercial airliners as guided missiles to perpetrate what became the most influential act of terrorism in world history, generating mass fear, confusion, sorrow and rage on a scale that will not be forgotten. With the passing of a decade the reality of the attack—the smoke and the flames, the blood and the destruction—have receded into memory. Now the September 11th attack has become a concept, a symbol of the apex of terrorism in the new millennium.

Human beings evolved the capacity to generate symbolic thought over millions of years, a feat which allows us to predict and plan for potential threats and opportunities. For example, we put money in a 401k knowing that many years in the future we will have this money to live on. This aptitude is one ability that has made the human species uniquely successful among life on earth, as no other animal is capable of such complex future planning,

There is a downside, though, to this human capability: how we evaluate potential outcomes. If we are hunting for food and see a caribou, we get excited. Our emotional system signals us that an opportunity is present and it’s time to go after it. If, on the other hand, we see a bear, we become afraid, because our emotions are signaling it’s time to escape. This emotional evaluation system is probably similar in all animals, but the difference in humans is that we use this response pattern to judge imaginary scenarios as well.

from Katharine Herrup:

Boatlifters: The unknown story of 9/11

By Katharine Herrup
The opinions expressed are her own.

Much has been written and said about September 11, 2001, on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, but one story much less known is the one about the band of boats that came together to rescue nearly 500,000 New Yorkers from the World Trade Center site on the day the towers collapsed.

It was the largest boatlift ever to have happened – greater than the one at Dunkirk during World War II. Yet somehow a story of such large scale became lost in all the rubble. But a new 10-minute documentary called Boatlift by Eddie Rosenstein captures the boat evacuations that happened on 9/11. The film is part of four new short documentaries that were created for the 9/11 Tenth Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C.

“Boats, usually an afterthought in most New Yorkers minds, were, for the first time in over a century, the only way in or out of lower Manhattan,” says Tom Hanks, the narrator of the film.

9/11 in history: chapter or footnote?

By Dominic Streatfeild
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Historians like to break up human progress into bite-sized pieces. It’s a useful technique: segregated and labelled, historical eras offer prisms through which to view the past, making it easier to comprehend. Typically, they’re bookmarked by inventions: the wheel, the steam engine, the atom bomb. Intellectual movements fit nicely, too: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism. Each innovation provides a paradigm shift, ushering in a way of thinking previously inconceivable but, after its emergence, unignorable.

Occasionally, waypoints are provided by momentous events. A happening of sufficient magnitude (the argument goes) jars the historical process decisively, severing the connection between past and future, sweeping away the old and paving the way for the new. The Flood in Genesis, the birth of Christ, the attack on Pearl Harbor – all “watershed” moments. Bookmarking such events not only provides useful academic waypoints, it also offers another important service: reassurance. With the sweeping away of the old comes trepidation. The birth of a “new era” provides a link to the past: there have been epochal events before. Things have changed rapidly, and not always for the better. We have survived them. We will again.

The impact of American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8.46 a.m. on 11 September 2001 was immediately labelled a watershed event. Seventy-six minutes later, after both the South Tower and the Pentagon had been hit, United Airlines Flight 93’s calamitous descent into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania,marked the end of the attacks – and the start of a still-ongoing attempt to define what, exactly, they meant.

How movies explained the lone unrecorded event of 9/11

By John Markert
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Certain events are seared into the collective memory of those who lived at the time the event occurred. Those most affected are those who experienced the event during their critical ages of adolescence and early adulthood; those least affected are those who are born after the event occurred because of their psychological distance from the event. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy may be historical footnotes for those born after the event, but few that heard of the tragedy at the time fail to remember where they were or what they were doing when they first learned of its occurrence.

The collapse of the WTC may be even sharper on the mind than earlier historical events for those who lived through it. In part, this is due to the extensive television coverage that took place as the twin towers collapsed and to the ensuing search for survivors and cleanup efforts that followed. In part, it is also owing to the video-recording equipment widely available to the man on the street. This visual coverage of the collapse of the twin towers, the narrator of In Memoriam: New York City 9/11/2001 points out, is the reason it is “the most documented event in history.” The amount of film footage also explains the outpouring of documentaries examining the collapse.

But here, consider two fictional films that eulogize the heroic spirit of those who died on 9/11, whose actions took place far from any camera, and thus have gone unrecorded and undocumented: Flight 93 and United 93. They are not about the WTC or the war on terror; they are about the actions of unsung heroes of 9/11.

The 9/11 generation

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

In a speech last week at the American Legion convention in Minneapolis, President Obama rightly hailed what he called “the 9/11 generation,” the five million Americans who served in the military over the last decade.

“They’re a generation of innovators,” he declared. “And they’ve changed the way America fights and wins at wars.”

The following day, at a ceremony marking his retirement from the military, Gen. David Petraeus affirmed Tom Brokaw’s similar praise as the two men toured Iraq in 2003.

The cost of killing Osama bin Laden

By John Yoo
The opinions expressed are his own. In the space of forty minutes on May 1, 2011, two Navy SEAL teams descended on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden. They brought a rough measure of justice to the man responsible for the killing of 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, and thousands of others in countries from Spain to Iraq. President Obama’s greatest victory to date in the war on terror vindicated the intelligence architecture—put into place by his predecessor—that marked the path to bin Laden’s door. According to current and former administration officials, CIA interrogators gathered the initial information that ultimately led to bin Laden’s death. The United States located al-Qaeda’s leader by learning the identity of a trusted courier from the tough interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, and his successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Armed with the courier’s nom de guerre, American intelligence agencies later found him thanks to his phone call to a contact already under electronic surveillance. Last August, the courier traveled to bin Laden’s compound, but it took another eight months before the CIA became certain that the al-Qaeda leader was hiding inside.

The successful operation to kill bin Laden followed in the steps of earlier victories in the war on terror made possible by the enhanced interrogation program. Interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, thought at the time to be al-Qaeda’s operations planner, in the spring of 2002 led to the capture of much of al-Qaeda’s top leadership at the time.

On September 11, 2002, Pakistan captured Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the right-hand man to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and the primary conduit between al-Qaeda leaders and 9/11 commander Mohammed Atta. Six months later, American and Pakistani agents landed KSM, the “principal architect” of the 9/11 attacks and a “terrorist entrepreneur.”

Not only did the captures of these three commanders take significant parts of the al-Qaeda leadership out of action, they also yielded intelligence that prevented future terrorist attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report is a testament to the large amount of information that they provided.

The case for torture warrants

By Alan Dershowitz
The opinions expressed are his own. One goal of terrorism directed against democracies is to provoke overreaction and repression. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, many Americans did in fact overreact, and although the actions of the government did not approach “repression,” there were some overreactions that seemed to play into the hands of the terrorists. Perhaps the most egregious were the acts of humiliation and torture that were captured by cell phone photographs at Abu Ghraib prison. These disturbing photographs went viral throughout the world and showed the ugly face of American torture. Surprisingly, the events of 9/11 also stimulated a debate within Western democracies: Is torture ever justified in the war against terrorism?

Rational discussion of this and other questions relating to torture proved difficult, because the issues are so emotional. Indeed, to many absolutists, the very idea of a “rational” discussion of torture is an oxymoron. To them, the issue is simple and clear-cut: torture should never be employed or even considered, because it never works; it is incompatible with democratic values; it is barbaric; it will always lead to more barbaric practices; it is worse than any evils it may prevent; it will provoke even more terrorism; it strips any democracy employing it of the moral standing to object to human rights violations by other nations or groups; and it unleashes the “law of unintended consequences.”

Most of these arguments are empirical in nature and may be true or false as matters of fact. But there is one fact that is indisputably true, has always been true, and, in my view, will always be true. That fact is that every democracy confronted with a genuine choice of evils between allowing many of its citizens to be killed by terrorists, or employing some forms of torture to prevent such multiple deaths, will opt for the use of torture. This, too, is an empirical claim, and I am entirely confident that it is true as a matter of fact.

Although the current administration, unlike its predecessor, has announced that it would never torture suspected terrorists, it has also resisted any judicial review of its counterterrorism measures. “Trust us,” but don’t ask us to justify that trust! Such an approach might be acceptable if men were angels, but no administration is run by angels. That is why visibility and accountability are essential to democratic governance. Neither is this an issue that divides along party lines. President Clinton implicitly acknowledged on National Public Radio that he would have used torture in an extreme case: