AG Eric Holder's statement that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will remain in custody no matter the verdict in his upcoming Manhattan trial coupled with Obama's instructions to the jury that KSM be "convicted and executed" reveals the entire exercise as a show trial -- a ritual effort intended not to achieve justice, but to make a public political point. The question is, what could that point possibly be?
Show trials have had a long and ignoble history in the last century. Pioneered in the USSR by the Stalin regime, they were used as method of instilling terror into the vozhd's enemies, ensuring party discipline, and creating propaganda spectacles for overseas consumption. During the purges of the 1930s, the show trial became one of the Soviet state's most potent instruments for breaking and humiliating prominent figures in the party, the military, and industrial and academic circles.
As a rule, the victim would be arrested by the security organs (at the time known by the acronym OGPU) and prepped with a year or more of interrogations coupled with savage treatment designed to produce "confessions" to any number of crimes. Once adequately prepared, they appeared for trial in a courtroom featuring up to three selected party judges, no jury, and no defense counsel.
The "trials" were orchestrated by Andrei Vyshinsky, chief prosecutor of the USSR, a figure typical of the unsavory careerists who attached themselves to Stalin. Vyshinsky was known to his victims as the "human rat," and with good reason, as his photographs reveal. In the courtroom, Vyshinsky would read from the "confession" and berate the defendant, who would repeatedly admit guilt and beg for mercy. At the end of the proceedings, a prearranged verdict and sentence were announced, almost always amounting to execution or a lengthy term in the Gulag. There was no such thing as an appeal. While most trials went according to script, the occasional rare defendant would defy the process. Nikolai Bukharin, a veteran Bolshevik and former collaborator with Stalin, repudiated his confession on the stand while giving a detailed account of his mistreatment at the hands of the secret police. A recess was called, and Bukharin was taken into another room to find his daughter seated with a pistol at her head. He meekly returned to the stand and said not another word before being led to his execution.
The show trials were an effective means of cementing Stalin's rule, breaking up any possible opposition, and placing an iron yoke on the party and the populace. They continued at intervals throughout the Stalin period. Another round, this one aimed at Russian Jews, was being prepared at the time of Stalin's death in 1953.
Show trials also occurred in most other Marxist states, with particularly notorious examples in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Red China, where they were a major component of Mao's version of the Great Purge, the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1974). For the most part, show trials did not play a large part in Nazi rule. The one exception was the trial of Marinus van der Lubbe, a subnormal Dutch Communist accused of setting fire to the Reichstag, Berlin's parliamentary building, on February 27, 1933. (The actual fire was set by a gang of Nazi storm troopers.) The trial was designed to give Hitler an excuse to round up German Communists once and for all. The lack of Nazi show trials may well be due to the German respect for rules and legal protocols, evident even among the Nazis. One example occurred in February 1945, when Roland Freisler, the Nazi version of Vyshinsky, was prosecuting Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a member of the German Resistance that had attempted to assassinate Hitler the previous year. An air raid took place during the trial, and Judge Freisler was killed by debris. A mistrial was declared, and von Schlabrendorff was remanded to custody. Before the trial could resume, the war had ended, and the defendant, directly involved in the attempt to kill Hitler, was set free and lived to a fine old age.
From this short history we can derive three things: that show trials are phony from start to finish, that they are staged for the purpose of making a political statement, and that they are almost always directed against domestic political opponents. So how does this template apply to the KSM trial?
We can dismiss the possibility that Obama thinks he can impress the rest of the world with his fairness and magnanimity. (And how many of us truly believe that O knew nothing about the decision, as Holder claims? While they may not have talked about it directly, the AG certainly got the nod and wink.) That may well be a partial motive, but with Holder's admission of fakery, that's gone. The same can be said of any notion that we can impress Muslim countries by bending over backwards in trying terrorists. They'll merely think we're being stupid, naïve, or both. It doesn't require a lot to research to discover that regimes in Islamic countries have far less patience for terrorism than anyone in the West -- how fair is the treatment that members of the Muslim Brotherhood have received in Egypt?
Here we'll pause for a closer look at Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself. Apart from his involvement in murdering nearly three thousand people, what is he known for? Well, above all, he's the most prominent victim of Bush administration "torture" -- at least under the new definition of the term, which is "being made excessively uncomfortable for repeated short periods for purposes of breaking resistance to interrogation."
That's where we find our answer. The KSM show trial is not aimed at terrorists or an international audience. It's aimed, in the classic sense, at domestic enemies. Holder has been transparently eager to prosecute Bush officials involved in "torture" but was evidently told to low-key the effort -- little has been heard of it since the first announcement last spring. But here he has a workable substitute. There's no question that torture will come up -- really, it's the only thing the defense has. Endless discovery requests will be made for classified material concerning KSM's interrogations. These requests will be subject to interminable public debate. The material that is provided will be leaked to appear in the media and provide Democrats with opportunities to attack the GOP. The entire exercise will be turned into an indictment of the Bush administration, with the actual facts of the case -- the terrorist murder of thousands of Americans -- relegated to the background. And if the prosecution collapses (a distinct possibility), why, it's all Bush's fault.
What does Obama get out of all this? Take a look at the timeframe. Considering the glacial nature of current legal proceedings, it will be a year and a half to two years before the trial even starts, and it's likely to continue for at least a year...which puts it right in the middle of the 2012 election campaign. Put simply, Obama thinks he can run against Bush in 2012.
Put a bit more complexly, the trial offers Obama a chance to show that he's "tough on terrorism" while at the same time operating on an infinitely higher moral plane than such devils in human form as Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, and so on. This may seem smart -- after all, between the economy, health care, Iran, and Afghanistan, it's certainly beginning to look as if Obama will have nothing else to run on. But there exist several flaws in this scheme. Considering the public attention span as regards politics, running against Bush in 2012 will be like running against Franklin Pierce. And there's always the possibility of "events" intervening. It's unlikely that such a trial can occur without KSM's comrades giving him a shout-out in the form of a new attack visible from the courthouse. It doesn't have to be in Manhattan, either -- Jersey City and Brooklyn are both in line of sight and will do fine. It's possible that the administration believes it can dump such an eventuality in Bush's lap as well. If so, their first meaningful encounter with wartime public opinion remains ahead of them. And this is not considering the international response. Is it conceivable that the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran will allow infidels to conduct the lengthy trial of a brother Muslim without making their opinion known? There are a hundred ways this thing can go wrong. Is there any possible way it can go right?
This is not the first American show trial. That honor goes to a trial that occurred in 1944, in which a number of defendants opposed to Roosevelt's prewar policies, including America Firsters, pacifists, and German Bundists, were arraigned on an ex post facto accusation of sedition. It's unknown who was behind it, but it's likely to have been Harry Hopkins, with his deep admiration for everything Stalinesque. But so thin was the government's case, and so absurd its presentation, that the defendants themselves began laughing out loud at some of the questions. At that point the judge -- gutsier than many current examples -- demanded one piece of solid evidence from the prosecution. When none was forthcoming, he stopped the trial and dismissed all charges.
If the FDR administration couldn't pull it off, it's my contention that the Obama administration can't either. We have an interesting conception here: a new twist on the ancient show trial formula, one truly worthy of Daley's Chicago. This is the "carom" show trial, in which the true target is not the defendant, but a third party not even present. It's much like striking a ball on the pool table in the hopes of knocking another ball in.
And in that, it's probably far too complex and tricky an operation for Obama to manage. In virtually everything it tackles -- the recession, health care, foreign policy -- the Obama White House has developed a reputation for thinking large and accomplishing little. Odds are that the KSM show trial will be yet another example.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.