Sometimes the only thing that separates comedy from tragedy is the involvement of an actual living human being.
That certainly seems to be the case where today’s military commission verdict in the trial of Salim Hamdan. Despite having the advantages of what we must, for the lack of a better word, call a legal system that was set up to give the prosecution the edge, despite the admission of hearsay evidence, despite the use of material taken from interviews that didn’t come within a light year of the Miranda guidelines, and despite the use of secret prosecution testimony, the prosecution was unable to secure a conviction on the charges that Hamdan conspired to commit terrorist attacks.
He was, however, convicted on charges of providing material support (his services) to a terrorist organization. That part of the verdict is hardly a surprise, given that Hamdan admitted to being Bin Laden’s driver.
Now you might think, as the White House apparently did, that anyone capable of driving Bin Laden’s car must be a criminal mastermind, capable of planning devious attacks on unsuspecting civilian targets. Or, if you are less well grounded in the ideologically driven world, you might wonder if Bin Laden really needed much more in a driver than someone capable of understanding how and when to use the pedals, gear shift, and steering wheel. The question, of course, is how to tell which possibility actually fits Hamdan.
The defense deviously attempted to sway the members of the court toward the “pedals and gear shift” view by attempting to depict their client as a semi-literate Bedouin with a fourth grade education, who knows how to drive, wash cars, load trucks, and change oil filters and tires. They apparently were successful in this, even in the face of damning allegations from al-Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed that behind Hamdan’s convincing facade lurked someone who was actually a semi-literate Bedouin with a fourth grade education, who knows how to drive, wash cars, load trucks, and change oil filters and tires.
In all seriousness, though, this just provides yet another argument – like we really need one – in favor of closing down the national disgrace that is Guantanamo Bay. Do we actually think that the US justice system is so vulnerable, so fragile, that it cannot deal with someone like Hamdan? Did we really need to go through years of lawsuits and legislation to get to the point where it actually became possible to convict someone who admitted to driving Bin Laden around on the charge that he drove Bin Laden around?
Some may claim – and in fact both the White House and McCain already have – that the split verdict proves that the trial was fair. It does not, and it was not. The prosecution needed to convince 4 of 6 jurors that Hamdan was guilty. To do this, they were given every possible advantage. Their failure to gain a conviction on all the charges does not in any way prove that the trial was fair. It only proves that the administration’s case was too weak to be saved even by such a blatantly rigged system, and that between three and six members of the US military were willing to stand up and say so.
The fairness of the jurors – not the trial itself, but the jurors – was not something that I was overly concerned about. By and large, the people in the US military think of themselves (and by and large are) professionals. They take their jobs seriously, and most of them will usually try to do the right thing. There are self-serving schmucks interested only in their own advancement and willing to trample anyone who gets in their way, of course, but it’s not easy to pack a jury with that type. Whenever you get a couple of them together at the same time they start to cannibalize each other.
No, neither the fairness of the jurors nor the unfairness of the court was ever really in question. The only real question that this verdict raises is this: why did this man have to sit in a cell in Gitmo for this long waiting for the opportunity to appear before a kangaroo court when the real ones were available all the time?