America's long campaign to defeat Al Qaeda took a largely untested turn on Friday with a decision by US Attorney General Eric Holder to put the key 9/11 suspects on trial in a civilian court – just blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood.
If he's right, Mr. Holder's choice to treat Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Guantánamo Bay detainees as normal criminals – and to put America's rule of law on display for all terrorists to see – will likely keep Americans safer from another Al Qaeda-inspired attack.
President Bush, of course, prevented another 9/11-style attack during his time in office. But he treated terror suspects as outside civilian law, subject to only military trials or no trials at all.
Barack Obama's election a year ago promised a new tactic, one that claims that a stricter adherence to the ideals of the Constitution will better defeat an unconventional enemy whose methods challenge many legal precedents.
His new approach faces its first reality check if this trial begins in a few months.
Here are the key tests:
1. Will New York City be made safe and the jury protected from any retaliatory attacks by Al Qaeda? (Holder cites the successful trials of other terrorists, such as Ramzi Yousef for the 1993 World Trade center bombing, as evidence that this trial can be held safely.)
2. Will the trial provide a rallying point for jihadists to promote their propaganda and recruit more terrorists? (Holder contends the world will see American justice at work, and that will rally more people against Al Qaeda's terrorist ways.)
3. Will the government's antiterrorist techniques be exposed during the trial, helping to aid Al Qaeda? (The attorney general claims a judge will allow secret sessions during the trial to prevent such exposure.)
4. Will "enhanced" interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, which were used against some suspects, result in a mistrial being declared? (Holder claims he has now-secret evidence that will ensure a conviction no matter what.)
5. In seeking the death penalty for the suspects, will the United States make them martyrs for their cause to those radical Muslims who see such death as justifying their acts? (No comment yet from the attorney general on that question.)
6. While being held in prison, will the defendants indoctrinate other prisoners? (Judges don't look kindly on solitary confinement without just cause. No comment from Holder.)
7. Even if this trial goes well and results in convictions, will not President Obama's decision to hold other suspects indefinitely without a trial simply defeat the purpose of such civilian trials. (Again, no comment.)
Obama asserts that America need not sacrifice its ideals to ensure security against terrorism. That assertion will also be on trial in this momentous case. He was elected to test it. Now it's begun.
But the jury is still out.