Something remarkable didn't happen last week: Nobody blew up Detroit.
This is a stunning development. It is stunning because Detroit is the city where, on Thursday, a federal judge sentenced Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to life behind bars.
Abdulmutallab is the infamous Underwear Bomber – the man who tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day in 2009 in a suicide mission for al-Qaida. Four months ago he pleaded guilty to the charges. In civilian court, in Detroit.
Which, last time anyone checked, is still standing.
This is not what was supposed to happen, if you will recall. Three years ago, a lot of people – Republicans and conservatives, mostly – were pulling their hair out in (pardon the term) sheer terror at the very thought of trying terrorist suspects in civilian court.
The Obama administration had proposed doing just that with the detainees being held at the military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was going to put 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad on trial in New York. Other terrorist suspects would be tried in Washington. Pending trial, some of them were to have been held in custody here in Virginia.
Conservatives went berserk. Virginia Reps. Eric Cantor, Frank Wolf, and Randy Forbes strenuously opposed the idea. As this newspaper reported at the time, "The Republicans raised fears that the presence of detainees could make domestic jails targets of international terrorists and create local security risks in cases of escape. The lawmakers also were concerned that terrorists would try to recruit gang members."
Forbes introduced legislation to block federal funds for any transfer of prisoners from Guantanamostateside. Bob McDonnell, then running for governor, issued a press release supporting the measure. The United States District Courthouse in Alexandria, he noted, "is located in the city, only 190 feet from a new Westin Hotel, and close to apartment buildings, shops and restaurants. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, with 7,000 employees, is only a block away." The clear implication: Their lives would be in danger.
Former Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey agreed that any terrorist suspect's mere "presence would generate serious security concerns for any person or place associated with their prosecution or confinement."
Ditto Charles Krauthammer, who fretted that "any such trial will be a security nightmare and a terror threat to New York." What better propaganda, he asked, "than blowing up the entire courtroom,making KSM a martyr and making the judge, jury and spectators into fresh victims?"
Not only that: Granting KSM a civilian trial offered him "the greatest propaganda platform imaginable – a civilian trial in the media capital of the world – from which to proclaim the glory of jihad and the criminality of infidel America." In other words, it would be a grand recruitment opportunity for al-Qaida.
Many Americans shared such concerns. According to one 2009 poll, "nearly two out of every three respondents – 61 percent – said they think it is likely that New York City will experience a terrorist attack, either before, during, or immediately after the terrorist trials."
The pressure proved too great. On the same day Obama announced his bid for re-election, his administration caved on civilian trials for the prisoners at Gitmo, who would get military tribunals instead.
Abdulmutallab's sentencing makes the frenzied panic of three years ago look rather silly. Swarthy Middle Eastern commandos did not spring Abdulmutallab in a daring nighttime raid. He did not tunnel his way out of jail with a plastic spoon, or incinerate Grosse Pointe with a homemade nuke. He made a few remarks in court, but referring to his undies as a "blessed weapon" and his life sentence as a "victory" does not seem to have inspired legions of imitators.
Abdulmutallab will spend the rest of his days rotting in an isolation cell at a supermax prison inColorado. But he won't be entirely alone: The Alcatraz of the Rockies is home to Richard Reid, the shoe bomber; Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Ramzi Yousef, who helped bomb the World Trade Center in 1993; and Terry Nichols, who helped Timothy McVeigh bomb the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It also holds Ali Salah al-Marri, an al-Qaida sleeper agent, and Jose Padilla, the dirty bomber.
All those terrorists were tried in civilian court without incident, too. Ramzi Yousef was tried in New York. Most of those just named were tried and sentenced well before the Obama administration announced plans to close Guantanamo. Unlike his conservative critics, the president demonstrated some faith in the ability and dedication of the nation's courts, security guards, prison staff, and counterterrorist operatives.
And his critics? All they demonstrated is that pandering to public fear to score cheap political points can make you look like a fool.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.