The Big Apple's 9/11 Blues

Interesting to think that only a couple of weeks ago ago, New York City was going to be the place where the man accused of organizing the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center met American justice. We could handle it. We wanted to handle it.

Now, that's all over.

So, perhaps, is the Obama administration's plan to end the Bush-era assault on the Constitution. If so, New York City will have been the critical player in turning back the tide.

New York City is good at trying terrorists. While that might not be the skill everyone was hoping to perfect, we've got it down pat. Most notably, the men who carried out the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center were convicted here.

When the Obama administration announced New York City as the site for the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted chief architect of the 9/11 attack, it seemed both appropriate and doable.

The mayor, our senior senator, and other top officials all said the city could and would handle the challenge. The loudest naysayer was Rep. Peter King of Long Island, the area's lone Republican in Washington. But these days, Peter King complains about everything.

Then, a few weeks ago, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly let downtown business leaders in on his plans for security. Everyone went nuts.

Kelly envisioned a "soft perimeter" between Canal Street and City Hall Park, full of cops, dotted with unannounced vehicle checkpoints. The "hard perimeter," surrounded by barricades, would enclose three courthouses, police headquarters, the correctional center, a church and an apartment building housing 600 families. Nothing was getting into the hard perimeter until it was scanned or searched.

The local community board was already up in arms, and now virtually every real estate mogul, Wall Street honcho and business interest below Canal Street began howling. Kelly put a price tag of $200 million per year on the effort. That freaked everyone out even further, since no one had been imagining a trial that went on into infinity.

Mayor Bloomberg made a fast turnaround and expressed the fond desire that the feds move their trial somewhere else. Senator Chuck Schumer did likewise. The Justice Department blanched at the cost, and the sudden resistance from the city's powers that be.

By the end of last week the trial was homeless. "Any community in America is going to object in the same way New York finally did," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch O'Connell with obvious satisfaction.

The Republicans' deep interest in this matter has virtually nothing to do with the comfort of New York City and everything to do with their desire to brand Obama as soft on terrorism. They want to keep the Guantanamo prisoners where they are, and restrict any trials to military courts.

Senator Lindsay Graham quickly announced he was re-introducing a bill to block civilian trials for the five alleged 9/11 plotters. King wants to bar civilian trials for anyone at Guantanamo. Others believe that all accused terrorists are soldiers, and therefore the business of the military and the military alone.

No one has actually made a good argument for why Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the other accused plotters can't be handled by our courts, too. The theory that they would use the court as some kind of bully pulpit to convert the unwary to terrorism hasn't held up in any of the previous cases, which included true believers whose powers of persuasion were far greater. The judges, juries and lawyers all handled their duties well.

The Republicans' most powerful argument is actually the worst - that Americans would be too frightened to meet the challenge. They terrified small, rural towns with maximum security prisons into believing that the Guantanamo prisoners would be a clear and present danger. (If the prisoners couldn't escape, the argument went, their presence would still attract terrorist friends and families into the area.) Now they're doing the same thing with the judicial process.

Not only did the city rebel at playing host to the 9/11 trial last week. It also set of a series of not-in-my-town dominoes that make it increasingly unlikely that any community will be willing to assume the responsibility of taking on the trial. (The notable exception was the mayor of Newburgh, NY, who has a courthouse that needs paying off. But so far, no one seems to be taking the offer seriously.)

All in all, it's not a pretty picture for New Yorkers.

As the ninth anniversary of the WTC attack approaches, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. The city has emerged as a key architect of the too-scary-to-handle response to terror. The replacement of the World Trade Center remains years away amid endless bickering between developer Larry Silverstein and the Port Authority. And thousands of brave men and women who rushed to ground zero to help on 9/11 - the construction workers and the emergency responders - continue to suffer from illnesses that almost surely were caused by their long exposure to toxic air at the site.

Not what we were hoping for.