New York divided over 9/11 terror trials

New York has seen seven major terror trials in the past, the most of any city in America. But residents – both ordinary citizens and elected officials – appear to be split over the decision to try the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks in the city.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed 9/11 mastermind and his four alleged co-conspirators in New York, the city gets the dubious title of Terror Trial Capital of America.

There are already three terror-related trials currently going through the courts in either Manhattan or Brooklyn. In the past, the city has seen seven major terror-trials, including such high-profile cases as Ramzi Yousef convicted in 1996 of the first World Trade Center bombing, and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind cleric convicted in 1995 of plotting to bomb buildings.

Still, the decision to hold 9/11 trials in New York has been controversial here, with some arguing it will reopen psychological wounds and keep the city in the crosshairs of terrorists.

Recommended: The 9/11 trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: A quiz

Others counter that New York's giant police force and experience in trying terrorists is up to the task. They add that the trials of the 9/11 plotters would bring back painful memories no matter where they were held.

"It is better to hold the trials here than anywhere else," says Douglas Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College in New York. "If this is a clash of cultures, a clash of civilizations, whatever it is, the hallmark of our system is our legal system so let's show the world what we are all about."

A Marist poll Tuesday found New Yorkers split over holding the trials in the city, with 45 percent favoring the idea and 41 percent against it. Fourteen percent were unsure.

"People have opinions, but the city as a whole is ambivalent," says Lee Miringoff, director of polling at the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie , N.Y.

On Wednesday, former Big Apple mayor Rudolph Giuliani said in a conference call with reporters that holding the trials in New York was "absolutely the wrong decision."

The trials would add to the New York Police Department's (NYPD) burden, Mr. Giuliani said, adding that he would rather see the perpetrators tried in a military court. "There is no reason to add anything to what makes New York City a target when there is another approach," he said in the call organized by the Republican National Committee.

The trial was also opposed by New York's Democratic Gov. David Paterson. "I think it raises the threat in our area," he said on radio station WBLS Monday, though he appeared to walk back from that position the next day.

However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last Friday that it was "fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered."

Some independent observers don't discount the possibility the trials could make New York an even larger target.

"[W]e do know that Al Qaeda does keep trying to go back to the same well over and over," said John Bellinger III, an expert on international and national security law, in a media conference call Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. "[T]hey might try again to disrupt this trial."

New York would look like UN General Assembly week for years to come, Mr. Bellinger said. The week is known for the enormous police presence and closed off roads triggered by the security needs of international leaders.

That concern was also raised by Sen. Charles Schumer, (D) of New York, at the Senate Judiciary Committee's oversight hearing with Attorney General Eric Holder. He said the city would run up police overtime, putting additional officers on crowd control, in the subways, and on the bridges.

"I worry about the burden on the taxpayers of New York," Senator Schumer said.

Mr. Holder agreed it was unfair for New York to pay for the additional security and said he would press to have the federal government pay the costs. As Schumer pointed out, that's what happened in 1995 at the trial of Mr. Rahman, the cleric.

Monitor staff reporter Warren Richey, Monitor librarian Leigh Montgomery and Monitor interns Tracey Samuelson and Elizabeth Ryan contributed to this report.

See also:

Who are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other accused terrorists?

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 9/11 trial carries risks

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