Ever since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a dispute has raged over how to deal with terrorists when they are captured. Should they be tried like ordinary criminals in civilian courts, or should they be given some other sort of status that puts them on a different level from ordinary criminals?
The Bush Administration was emphatic that terrorists were not ordinary criminals and shouldn't be treated as such. However, since the terrorists are not military personnel of a foreign state, they cannot be treated as prisoners of war under international law. To resolve this paradox, and despite having no constitutional authority to do so, the Bush Administration created a new legal designation for terrorists- "enemy combatants"- and locked them up in the prison camp of Guantanamo Bay or other detainment facilities around the world (many of them secret), so as to circumvent the constitutional protections the terrorists would have had on American soil.
In the past, terrorist suspects were tried in civilian courts. This was done in the case of the men who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, and also in the case of Timothy McVeigh, the domestic terrorist who blew up Alfred O. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, killing 168 people. Trying terrorist suspects in civilian courts never presented any insurmountable problems before the 9/11 attacks, which makes the subsequent behavior of the Bush Administration all the more confusing.
Civilian courts were deemed unacceptable by the Bush Administration, which decided to implement a special system of military courts in which to try the 9/11 suspects and other Al Qaeda prisoners. In its desire to paint the campaign against Al Qaeda as a "war", even though the enemy is a nonstate organization and not an independent nation, the administration apparently never considered simply treating the terrorists as the criminals they are. With the hindsight available to us eight years later, we can now see that this was a very serious mistake.
Al Qaeda, and all the other Islamic terrorist groups who share its ideology, like to see themselves as religious warriors fighting for freedom against an oppressive enemy. Indeed, they have created a sophisticated propaganda machine to spread this image throughout the Muslim world and beyond. By treating them as something more than common criminals, the Bush administration gave them a mystique and credibility that they do not deserve. With the stroke of a pen, Bush raised the public status of the Al Qaeda fighters from murderous criminals to holy warriors.
Last November, President Obama created a firestorm of controversy when he announced that Al Qaeda suspects would be tried in a civilian court in New York, rather than in a military court in in the Guantanamo prison camp. Republicans lambasted the decision as somehow being "soft" on terrorism. But President Obama's decision was the correct one, and he is to be commended for sticking to his guns in the face of sustained political pressure.
Terrorists are nothing but murderous thugs, and treating them as common criminals is the only rational thing to do. Giving them some sort of special status elevates them to a higher level than they deserve and creates artifical credibility for their twisted political and religious ideologies. It also subverts the forms of constitutional law on which our nation is founded, for if the legal status of terrorists can be altered simply by executive decree, so can the legal status of anybody else.