From Walter Reich
What’s the meaning of the offer last week by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Guantánamo detainees to plead guilty to the charge that they coordinated the attacks of 9/11 that murdered nearly 3,000 Americans?
That meaning is revealed by the fact that they withdrew their offer as soon as they learned that procedural problems—and probably the timetable of the presidential transition—could interfere with their immediate executions.
The plea offer—and its withdrawal—should help us understand what drives Mohammed and his colleagues. And it should help the Obama administration understand what to do about the Guantánamo detainees.
What drives Mohammed and his co-defendants, now that they’re in captivity, is what drove Al Qaeda when it flew planes into the World Trade Center: the effort to achieve a spectacular show of martyrdom. But who is their primary audience now that they’re in Guantánamo?
Clearly, that audience is not made up of Westerners. To be sure, were these detainees to make impassioned speeches before their executions proclaiming their joy in dying in response to the victimization of Muslims, a few in the West might admire their dedication to their cause. For most in America and Europe, though, that dedication would be outweighed by the mass murders for which they claimed responsibility.
More likely, the detainees’ offer to plead guilty was aimed at a Muslim audience. It was aimed, first of all, at an audience of hard-core Al Qaeda members, for whom the achievement of a death-wish would be seen as a commitment to martyrdom that they should emulate. And it was aimed at the rest of the Muslim world in the hope that it would highlight the Al Qaeda’s grievances and enlist recruits to the Islamist jihad against the Western oppressors.
In pursuing this strategy, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants were trying to use Guantánamo, as the World Trade Center was used, as a symbol of the hated America—an America that could be damaged by turning American power against itself. In the case of the World Trade Center, American power consisted of prominent buildings that symbolized the financial might of a corrupt America, which were destroyed spectacularly by flying Western-made planes into them. In the case of Guantánamo, American power consists of detention facilities that symbolize the legal system of a corrupt America, which would be destroyed by forcing that system to turn its inmates into martyrs.
And in pursuing this strategy, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was following Al Qaeda’s playbook to the letter. He was using whatever stage is available to publicize his cause, to demonstrate his commitment, and to provide a big show. His hope was that the show would be spread virally on television, in newspapers and on the Internet to an audience of believers and potential believers in the Muslim world, bucking up the convictions of the believers and recruiting, to the believing camp, many more.
So what is to be done?
Clearly, what’s needed in response to terrorists is the legal pursuit of legal means in the service of legal ends. The plans of the incoming Obama administration, which seem to include the transfer of inmates to U.S. prisons, may eliminate the Guantánamo stigma from America’s legal response to the terrorism aimed at it.
But what’s needed no less is a careful consideration of the consequences, for Al Qaeda and its sympathizers, of executions that would be interpreted as glorious outcomes of glorious martyrdom operations. The Bush administration has sought the death penalty for convicted mass-murdering terrorists. It would be the better part of wisdom for an Obama administration to favor, instead, life in prison.