We are now headed for three dramatic trials of those who have allegedly conspired to commit terrorism against the United States.
One of these, John Walker, an American convert to Islam, by his own admission trained in an Al Qaeda terrorist training camp, fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, met Osama bin Laden, and knew that attacks on the US were planned.
The second, Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is charged with being an accomplice in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. At the time of the attack, Mr. Moussaoui had been detained on immigration charges after having aroused suspicions at a Minnesota flight school.
The third, Richard Reid, a British citizen of British and Jamaican ancestry and a convert to Islam, is charged with trying to blow up an American Airlines plane with explosives concealed in his shoes on a Paris-Miami flight. Initially he was thought to have been operating alone, but reports discovered by The Wall Street Journal on the computer of a bin Laden lieutenant in Kabul suggest he may have had a substantial relationship with Al Qaeda.
The separate trials of all three will be held in civilian courts, as distinct from the military tribunals that have been established by the Bush administration for the possible prosecution of terrorists. In the case of American citizen Walker, President Bush is understood to have made this decision personally.
Thus the proceedings in the trials will be open, although not necessarily covered live by television and radio. That is a decision for the respective judges, one of whom, in the Moussaoui trial, declined last week to permit televised proceedings. A number of lesser figures also face charges relating to their alleged involvement in terrorism, but these are the principal individuals who have so far captured the most attention.
What we may learn from the Walker trial is what induced this then-teenage son of prosperous Californian parents to embrace Islam, adopt its most extreme manifestation as a Taliban foot soldier in Afghanistan, and perform acts against his country which most of us would regard as treacherous.
Moussaoui and Mr. Reid are likely to be less communicative. But from their trials we may still learn much more about the violent practices of Al Qaeda.
The courts will go through the process of examining the charges, some of which carry the death penalty, against these assorted men and determine their fate. If they are found guilty, we are at least unlikely to see them free for a very long time.
Given the circumstances of their respective arrests, and the volume of circumstantial evidence against them, there will be widespread public presumption among Americans of their terrorist involvement. That is why the decisions that the judicial processes should take place in the open are good ones.
The United States is a nation of laws, and the trials should demonstrate that the proceedings are fair to the accused under those laws even though the deeds of which they are accused are particularly foul. That is why a strong case can be made for also opening the trials to live TV and radio coverage.
This is important in the Islamic world, where disbelief about the unquestionable facts of the terrorist attacks still, incredibly, abound and where criticism of American bombing in Afghanistan still resonates. I have a Kuwaiti friend, thoroughly Americanized, now resident here, whose family endured the Iraqi seizure and occupation of his country. He is just back from a month in his homeland.
"What," I asked him, "is the Kuwaiti reaction to Sept. 11 and the events since?"
"Well, of course," he said, "there's a lot of support for the United States. Most people believe bin Laden probably was behind the attacks. But there's a lot of criticism of your killing civilians in Afghanistan."
When even such loyalist supporters of the US question American actions and motives, it is important that the trials of these accused men, and the trials of other suspected terrorists that will follow, proceed without a hint of legal impropriety. In the case of Mr. Walker, he has talked about his actions at some length with reporters and Central Intelligence Agency interrogators. It was proper and prudent that an FBI special agent advised him of his Miranda rights, and secured a written waiver of those rights, before seeking testimony on which the complaints against him are based.
Though the enormity of the events of Sept. 11 may cause some to demand revenge, justice should be the goal, and be seen to be applied.
John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.