Saturday, August 09, 2008

God Willing

One the things that's really got me hung up about the Hamdan trial is that he really did not seem to be one of the bad guys. He always maintained he was nothing but a menial worker, not a part of al-Qaeda's terrorist network, and has expressed (to my ears, anyway) genuine shock and sadness when he learned of the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaeda's other operations.

Ken Gude's Democracy Arsenal's post, commenting on this NYT article, really gets to the heart of that. Here's the passage from the Times that Gude quotes, an exchange between Hamdan and the military judge who presided over the trial that convicted him of war crimes:
"It was a sorry or sad thing to see innocent people killed," he said as he leaned on the defense table and gestured gently at the military tribunal here. "I personally present my apologies to them if anything what I did have caused them pain."

As he left the sparsely attended courtroom in the hilltop courtroom here, Mr. Hamdan, who at times has shown a mischievous sense of humor, raised his arms and said a good-natured "bye, bye" to the small group.

During pretrial proceedings, Mr. Hamdan, a father of two daughters in Yemen, and the judge, a career Navy lawyer, had regularly exchanged smiles and, on occasion, chats. Before he left the bench, Judge Allred, said a few parting words to the man he had gotten to know in a most unusual way.

"Mr. Hamdan," Judge Allred said, "I hope the day comes that you are able to return to your wife and daughters and your country."

"God willing," Mr. Hamdan said in the rudimentary English he picked up while in American custody.

"Insh-allah," said Judge Allred, repeating the same phrase in Arabic.

And here's Gude's comments:
Remember, this is an exchange between a man who had just been found guilty of war crimes and the judge who had presided over the trial that reached that conclusion. Hamdan appears to be genuinely remorseful about the very small role he played in al Qaeda. Allred shows real compassion for a man obviously caught up in something well beyond anything he ever intended. They then exchange the blessings of God in each other's language.

This moment could have had real power. This moment is what America is. This is the America I know. If it had occurred 5 years ago in a US court it would have sent an incredibly powerful message to the world that we are strong and we are just, and yes, Osama bin Laden murdered 3,000 Americans but he utterly failed to destroy our great country and all that it stands for.

But instead, we are arguing about whether the Pentagon will detain Hamdan indefinitely after his sentence has been completed. What a waste.

I can't help but think that the lenient sentence Hamdan received (only five months after time served) is related to the remorse he clearly feels, as well as the minor role he played in al-Qaeda's infrastructure (and, I'd hope, the fact that the trial against him was a mockery of the judicial system). But even still, that very fact makes his treatment that much more nightmarish. His case is the one that we all feared when these extra-legal detentions and procedurally deficient trials were established: someone who clearly does not deserve the label "war criminal" attached to him, but who may never see freedom because the mechanics by which he's imprisoned are so tied to America's defective political process.

I'm not making much sense; it's late, and I'm opining from the hip. But for whatever reason -- and I can't explain it -- Hamdan's case has always been one that tugged at my heartstrings. He deserved better. We deserved better. The military officers (who by all accounts were quite professional) deserved better than to be drawn into this farce.

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