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Why the 9/11 trial belongs in New York

By Peter Bergen and Karen Greenberg, Special to CNN
Peter Bergen and Karen Greenberg
Peter Bergen and Karen Greenberg
  • Bergen and Greenberg: Moving Khalid Sheik Mohammed trial out of NYC shows weakness, fear
  • Authors: Trial should be held where 9/11 crime committed for sake of families, justice
  • Trial doesn't make city more of a target than it is and has been for 20 years, they say
  • They write: New York's federal courts have a 100 percent conviction rate on terror trials

Editor's note: Karen Greenberg is the executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University, where Peter Bergen is a research fellow. Bergen is also CNN's national security analyst and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

New York City (CNN) -- Obama administration officials, apparently bowing to political pressure, said over the weekend they are considering moving the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused operational commander of the 9/11 attacks, out of New York City.

The objections to holding it in New York seem reasonable: The financial cost to the city and the fear that the trial might inspire a lone bomber or even an organized al Qaeda attack.

Certainly, holding Mohammed's trial over many months and even years in the congested streets of Lower Manhattan will damage the local economy. But the fix for this could be straightforward: Move the trial to one of the many other courthouses in the five boroughs, or to Governor's Island, which is within sight of the crater where the World Trade Center once stood.

As to fears of bringing on another attack, putting Mohammed on trial in New York doesn't make the city any bigger a target than it already is, because -- guess what -- New York already is the No. 1 target for jihadist militants. It has been so for almost two decades, since the first Trade Center attack in 1993, which was followed by the averted plots to blow up the Holland Tunnel and other Manhattan landmarks and the 9/11 attacks themselves. Since then, there has been a plot to blow up the Herald Square subway station and alleged attempts to bomb fuel tanks at JFK airport and synagogues in the Bronx.

The unconvincing objections about the costs of holding the trial and the heightened terror threat that comes with it are also trumped by the larger public good from putting Mohammed on trial in New York City.

A sense of justice for the 9/11 families. Let's begin with the most human of concerns: the 9/11 families. Watching justice take place can play an incalculable role in the healing process. As Susan F. Hirsch, who lost her husband in al Qaeda's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania in 1998, has said, there is no substitute for watching those who carried out the attacks face the charges against them.

Justice meted out in New York City would be the most accessible way for the 9/11 families to witness the trial.

Restoring the power of the rule of law and the criminal justice system. The courts in New York are unusually well-prepared to try Mohammed. Although the federal courts in general have a strong conviction record in trying terrorism crimes, New York's federal courts have won a 100 percent conviction rate on terrorism trials.

Before 9/11 as well, New York courts successfully prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned for life the likes of the "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman; the al Qaeda bombers who launched the attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; and the plotters of the first Trade Center attack five years earlier.

And New York City is now preparing for the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an al Qaeda member allegedly involved in the 1998 embassies bombings who, unbeknownst to most New Yorkers, has been living in prison in the city for nearly eight months, without incident.

Confidence in our security apparatus. Most important of all, perhaps, is that the fearfulness of New York authorities feeds a sense of learned insecurity that has dominated the U.S. since 9/11. By contrast, the American military families posted to Guantanamo Bay chose to stay when they learned that suspects who they legitimately believed were the worst of the worst terrorists would be imprisoned there. They did this because they trusted U.S. troops to protect them.

The backing down of the Obama administration on holding Mohammed's trial in New York City signals weakness and fear. Rather than facing our enemies by showing confidence in ourselves as a nation that knows how to protect itself, our government leaders have let us know that they do not trust our institutions to protect us, an idea that should be intolerable to Americans.

Some New York politicians are perpetuating these fears. They apparently do not trust our city police or our federal law enforcement officials to be able to keep residents safe during the trial. Whatever the financial cost of the trial, which according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be roughly $200 million per year -- far less than the $1 billion per week that the war in Afghanistan is costing -- the most important goal should be restoring to New Yorkers the sense of security they once had and now deserve.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bergen and Karen Greenberg.