From the courthouse window you can see the new Freedom Tower that has risen in the place of the World Trade Center, but it is just a building.
The real tower of freedom that stands in downtown Manhattan is the system of justice that has finally recovered itself with the prosecution of an accused Al Qaeda figure no differently than if he were any other accused criminal.
America never looked more beautiful than when Sulaiman Abu Ghaith appeared on Monday, not as a waterboarded enemy combatant at a Guantanamo Bay military tribunal, but as a criminal defendant in Manhattan federal court, being duly tried on charges of conspiring to kill Americans as set forth in indictment 98 Cr. 1023.
The evidence includes a still from a video taken the day after 9/11 that shows Abu Ghaith sitting beside the man soon-to-be his father-in-law, Osama bin Laden. Seated on the other side of bin Laden is his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
On Monday, Abu Ghaith was sitting in the defendant's chair as jury selection began in Courtroom 26A. A similar chair should be accorded al-Zawahiri if and when he is ever captured alive.
For a time, the sheer number of innocents murdered on 9/11 caused us to treat the terrorists as more than just criminals, and to lose faith in our legal system’s ability to deliver justice to them.
We even let our leaders use the murders in downtown Manhattan as a pretext to go into Iraq and divert our focus from catching the actual killers.
And nobody could have been happier about all that than the terrorists themselves. Their whole purpose was to terrorize us into becoming less than who we really are. And we remained in a state of fright four years ago, when the Obama administration suggested that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should be tried in Manhattan just like any other murderer.
All of Manhattan will have to shut down for months!
How can we protect ourselves with only thousands of cops?
What if we can’t control this fat middle-aged fanatic who sends others off to be martyred?
The idea was dropped and the dreaded mastermind of 9/11 will be tried in Guantanamo. Among the many things we lost along with our nerve was a chance for a victory over him such as was witnessed over Abu Ghaith on Monday morning when Judge Lewis Kaplan entered the courtroom.
“All rise!” the clerk called out.
The man who had sat next to Bin Laden on 9/12 rose along with everybody else. The two strapping marshals behind him looked plenty strong enough to have coaxed him to his feet if he had decided otherwise.
“Okay,” the judge said.
Abu Ghaith sat with everybody else.
The clerk then called out again: “Jurors entering.”
Everyone in the courtroom rose. Once more Abu Ghaith was among them, participating as a matter of requirement, if not spirit, in a ritual meant to convey respect for this group of ordinary citizens from whom 12 will be chosen to serve in an anonymous jury. They had all been asked to fill out questionnaires, and the judge further interrogated one who had answered that she has a relative who served in the Marines during our longest war.
“My son,” she said.
The judge asked if she felt she could still be impartial, even if the testimony included discussion of IEDs.
“I would be fair,” she replied.
Another prospective juror, a man, reported having “some dealing with some Muslims” in the past.
“But, then again, I could say that about anybody,” he added.
The judge asked how confident he was that he could be fair.
“No more confident than I am that I am going wake up in the morning,” he said. “I would say I would be as fair as I could be.”
One woman who has a son that currently serves as a cop at Ground Zero and lost a friend on 9/11 had a definite answer to the impartiality question.
But a great majority of those in the jury pool, including a lawyer who once had dealings with prisoners at Guantanamo, felt sure they could be impartial.
“It would be very challenging,” one woman admitted.
"What’s your bet?” the judge asked.
“I will do so to the best of my ability,” she replied.
A translator relayed all this to the defendant, who had been recorded in another post 9/11 video calling for the murder of thousands of more innocents, saying, “The storms shall not stop, especially the Airplane Storm.” Abu Ghaith now listened to the translated words of decent folks who were determined to act as our justice system requires.
Here was the opposite of fanaticism, voices of simple justice that would make the ravings of an Al Qaeda fanatic sound like exactly that.
In a comic moment, one man suffered a brain fritz and said he had read something about the defendant being “related to Obama.” Things turned serious as a woman said she knew several people who had been deployed and that one had returned from Afghanistan just last week.
“I think I could be fair,” she said. “I don’t think it would interfere with me because of my friends.”
In a twist, the defense is seeking to have Khalid Sheikh Mohammed testify via video from Guantanamo. He should have long since had his own turn in the defendant’s chair in the tower of freedom that one prospective juror summed up with succinct elegance on Monday.
“It’s the law,” she noted.