Fordham Law

Detroit Beats New York, in Baseball and in Terror Trials

Karen J. Greenberg in The New York Times City Room, October 18, 2011

Media Source


Bad enough that Detroit had New York’s number in the baseball playoffs. Now it has outclassed us in handling people accused of terrorism. Guess which situation should truly leave New Yorkers hanging their heads.

At a federal courthouse in Detroit’s central business district, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, forever to be known as the Underwear Bomber, admitted to being the wretch who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009. This embracer of Al Qaeda from Nigeria surprised everyone the other day by suddenly pleading guilty to all charges.

He then got the chance he wanted to prattle on about how terrible America was. Somehow, the nation survived his rant. The odds are good that Mr. Abdulmutallab, 24, will spend the rest of his days behind bars.

And so another terrorist bites the dust.

Detroit managed this with little to none of the political wailing that we have been subjected to in New York.

For sure, security was tighter than normal there. Bomb-sniffing dogs were put to work. Metal detectors were set up. A side street near the courthouse was closed off. “There was noticeable security, but it wasn’t at ridiculous levels,” said a Detroit reporter who covered the case but felt uncomfortable speaking for attribution.

Life, in other words, went on.

Nor did politicians there go on and on about the wrongheadedness of holding such a terrorism trial in the heart of their city. Some prominent figures did raise objections early on, including to this defendant’s getting lawyers at the expense of overburdened, underserved taxpayers. But the grumbling didn’t last long.

On the contrary, the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., told The Detroit News soon after Mr. Abdulmutallab’s arrest that it would be wrong “for us not to give him his day in court.”

“If we do that,” Mr. Anthony was quoted as saying, “then we become what our enemies are. They get the victory. We do not.”

Contrast that with the hand-wringing in New York over Washington’s original plan to put Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, on trial at the federal courthouse downtown.

No way, nervous local officials and fear-filled politicians screamed. The Police Department insisted that it would have to turn Lower Manhattan into an armed camp. With that, the mayor reversed his reflexive endorsement of a civilian trial in Foley Square as a splendid idea, even a just one. After many months of hemming and hawing, the Obama administration also capitulated to the fearmongers.

Chiming in was a chorus — dominated by Republican voices — that said military tribunals were the only proper settings for the Mohammeds and Abdulmutallabs. Most of those people, including former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, did not object to civilian trials when George W. Bush was president. Once Barack Obama took over, they changed their tune.

Yet statistics show that civilian courts have been vastly more effective than military commissions in trying those accused of terrorism, putting them behind bars and keeping them there.

A decade after 9/11, the military system has managed only a handful of trials; some of the convicted defendants have already been set free. In comparison, a report last month from the Center on Law and Security at New York University showed that in the decade since Sept. 11, the American court system had dispensed with 431 criminal cases against jihadists, producing a conviction rate of 87 percent and an average prison sentence was 14 years.

Now the Underwear Bomber joins that crowd.

“Unlike in New York, Detroit officials were able to take a high-profile terrorism trial in stride,” said Karen J. Greenberg, who used to be executive director of the N.Y.U. center. She recently became director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. Even allowing for the fact that Mr. Abdulmutallab’s trial did not involve a crime anywhere near the scale of 9/11, Ms. Greenberg said, “the idea that it would harm the security of Detroit’s citizens did not become a cause célèbre.”

Given how things have gone, New York is lucky that neither football team bearing the city’s name has the Detroit Lions on its schedule. Right now, the Motor City is outclassing us in that field, too.