If Osama bin Laden were captured alive tomorrow, what image would better serve the United States in the political struggle against al Qaeda -- an image of bin Laden in an orange Guantánamo jumpsuit brought before military officers, or one of the same man in plain clothes holding a serial number in an ordinary jailhouse mug shot? Which image would make him look bigger, and which smaller, in the eyes of his followers? Which would better convey America's confidence in itself and how it looks with contempt on those who murder civilians?
The second Bush administration got it right in 2003 when it put "shoe bomber" Richard Reid on trial before a federal civilian court (a decision to which none of Obama's current critics objected). Reid, who differed from the "underwear bomber" only in his choice of bomb-concealing clothing, also insisted at trial that he was a soldier at war with America. The judge in that case, William Young, replied:
"You are not an enemy combatant. You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in any war. You are a terrorist. To give you that reference, to call you a soldier gives you far too much stature. Whether it is the officers of government who do it or your attorney who does it, or that happens to be your view, you are a terrorist. ... So war talk is way out of line in this court. You're a big fellow. But you're not that big. You're no warrior. I know warriors. You are a terrorist. A species of criminal guilty of multiple attempted murders."
That's what the choice of venue in the 9/11 trial should convey. That's what the Obama administration should say to critics who demand that the U.S. government treat terrorists as soldiers: You are giving al Qaeda what they want. You are elevating them to a stature they do not deserve.