Steps From a Terrorism Trial, No Signs of Fear

Karen J. Greenberg in The New York Times City Room Blog, April 17, 2012

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By CLYDE HABERMAN

Here are things that took place in Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn Heights around noon on an uncommonly warm Monday:

Schoolboys played soccer. A teenage girl turned cartwheels. Nannies with baby strollers filled rows of benches. Young men took off their shirts and soaked up sun. A few people read, or listened to music.

In short, nothing remarkable happened, which is worth remarking on because it showed, once again, that New Yorkers refuse to do the one thing that many of their elected officials keep telling them to do: Be afraid.

Just yards from the park, in Brooklyn’s federal courthouse, a new terrorism trial got going on Monday. This is no small-time case. Adis Medunjanin, a Bosnian-born young man who grew up in Queens, is accused of plotting to blow up New York subway trains. Two of his high school classmates, Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay, have pleaded guilty in related proceedings, and said they had trained to become suicide bombers at a camp of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

“This case is actually one of the most serious,” said Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at the Fordham University law school. Ms. Greenberg has observed many terrorism trials held since the 2001 attacks. “They had the know-how, the training, the weapons, the intent,” she said. “Zazi was very clear about it at his plea: ‘I want to blow up a New York City subway.’”

Alone among the three men, Mr. Medunjanin insists that he is not guilty. His lawyer, Robert C. Gottlieb, cautioned the jurors in opening remarks on Monday to be leery of words like “Al Qaeda” and “terrorist.” They’re loaded, Mr. Gottlieb said. “These are words,” he said, “that the government knows will scare you beyond belief, and shake you to your core.”

Outside the courthouse, no one was scared or shaken. Far from it. As Ms. Greenberg said, “it’s not causing an uproar anywhere in terms of security.”

Asked what he thought about sitting in a park so close to a terrorism trial, a no-longer-young man who offered only his first name, Sonny, shrugged. “They’re in there,” he said, pointing to the courthouse. “We’re out here. They’re in good hands in there.” Inside the courthouse, officers, too, showed no signs of undue tension.

This raised the question, yet again, of why so many public officials insist on banging the drum of fear when it comes to terrorism cases and the rule of law.

New York has already had plenty of these trials. At one point, three of them were under way simultaneously at the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Life in that neighborhood went on as normal.

It surely came as no shock to many New Yorkers that the Justice Department originally wanted Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, to go on trial in that same Manhattan courthouse. Instinct told Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that the plan made sense. His initial reaction was to call it “fitting” that Mr. Mohammed and four of his collaborators would “face justice near the World Trade Center site, where so many New Yorkers were murdered.”

That was in late 2009. Then people in high places got cold feet. The police commissioner objected. Some members of Congress, including from New York, preached the politics of fear. Tabloid editorialists vented. The mayor retreated. After more than a year of dithering, the Obama administration threw in the towel as well. It reversed itself, and said that Mr. Mohammed and Company would face a military tribunal at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they are to be arraigned in two weeks.

Yet an inescapable fact remains: Civilian courts have proved themselves far more effective than military tribunals at putting terrorism suspects on trial, swiftly and surely. Hundreds of cases have gone through the courts, and statistics kept by Ms. Greenberg’s center show that prosecutors have a conviction rate of nearly 90 percent. In the 11 years since 9/11, military commissions have managed to produce all of seven — repeat, seven — convictions.

As for whether New Yorkers should be afraid about having trials in their midst, the man called Sonny answered that question without uttering a word. He spread his arms wide, to sweep in the tranquil park, and laughed, as if to say that the very idea of fear was absurd.