A Student’s Perspective on the USS Cole Trial- May 27, 2014- Kristi McMains

Military commissions have a lot in common with what we know as a regular trial that takes place in the US Court system. What differentiates a military commission is that a military commission is a court of law traditionally used to try law of war and related offenses. An alien unprivileged enemy belligerent who has engaged in hostilities, or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States, its coalition partners or was a part of al Qaeda, is subject to trial by military commission under the Military Commissions Act of 2009.

I have read the brief of the Amici Curiae prepared by retired military admirals and generals in support of the defense council who is in opposition to the military commission as the forum to try this case. An amici curiae opinion is an opinion on the case or an issue in the case that is written from an interested third party who is not directly involved in the litigation. There are two points in this brief that particularly struck me: that the attack on the USS Cole occurred at a time where there was no “war”, and secondly that allowing this “retroactive” dating of when a time of war existed would lead to endangerment of American soldiers lives were they to be tried in a military court abroad. I find that these two issues are inherently linked to one another, and I must respectfully, yet strongly, disagree with the assertions from the defense.

“Terrorism” as it is known today is a fairly new concept. I asked my parents if they were worried about “terrorists” and “terror attacks” when they were growing up, and their answers both surprised and saddened me. According to them, a “terrorist”, as they used the term growing up, was an unruly child, one whose actions were unpredictable and wild. Today, kids as young as grade school know a “terrorist” to be someone who has the intent to scare and potentially harm a large group of people. Frankly, the events of 9/11 had to change the definition of terrorism and, subsequently, the rules and regulations that are linked to this concept.

I would argue that we are in a theatre of war whenever we are attacked in connection with an act of terror. The USS Cole attack was undeniably an terrorist attack, one designed to be targeted directly at some of our sailors stationed abroad. Although the President and Congress had not specifically declared a war, in my mind there is no question that attacking a US military ship with a bomb constitutes an act of war. It is for this reason that I disagree with the defense and their arguments that the military commission is inappropriate because it did not occur in a time of war.

The second point that struck me was the assertion that allowing this trial to be held in a military commission would put our own soldiers at risk for trials abroad. One of the greatest qualities of our nation is that we want to treat everyone in a dignified and respectful manner. We are cognizant of the consequences of our actions and want to do our best to secure our soldiers’ safety and security. However, what fails to be mentioned is that not all countries are following the American example. If an American was captured by al Qaeda, the American would not receive increased protection because if his nationality. Rather, the chances that he will be treated with brutality are immensely high.

In their briefing, the defense council described some instances during the second world war and the reign of Hitler. At that time, the American military made sure that German prisoners were treated to the same rations as American soldiers. General Dwight D. Eisenhower said that he did “not want to give Hitler the excuse or justification for treating our soldiers more harshly than he was already doing.” Sadly, the circumstances are not comparable to the situation that is at hand today. Our current conflict is not against a unified armed force that is led by a single commander; we are against individuals who are united under a common enemy, America.

A military commission is a way to let these individuals, who have been accused of war crimes against the United States and our compatriots, a chance to be treated with a level of respect and humanity that would likely not be reciprocated if the roles were reversed. Trying these cases in American federal courts would hinder the administrations of justice because the nature of the beast of war and terror. A military commission affords these individuals a fair trial, complete with zealous advocacy and opportunity. It is the correct forum for this case and is sufficient in ensuring that justice will be administered.

 

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