Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a terrorist mastermind—some newspapers put it just like that. Some modify “terrorist mastermind” with “self-styled,” “self-proclaimed,” or “confessed.” A few use “accused” or “alleged,” but not many, because everyone knows that KSM is guilty. Among the many crimes of which he stands accused is a conspiracy to hijack four commercial airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, and fly them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Capitol, resulting in the deaths of 2,976 people. In 2008, before the incoming Obama administration tried and failed to transfer the case to a civilian court, KSM and his four co-defendants said they wanted to plead guilty. In 2009, they co-signed a document titled “The Islamic Response to the Government’s Nine Accusations,” in which they take credit for “the blessed September 11 operation,” and reaffirm a sacred duty to “killing you and fighting you, destroying you and terrorizing you.” Reading this document, one gets the sense that the Accused are indeed “monsters.” To put it in less histrionic terms, they are total assholes.
Sept. 11 was one of many large-scale plots cooked up by KSM since the early ‘90s and confessed to at a “combatant status review hearing” in 2007. At various points in his career he also plotted the destruction of former U.S. presidents, Pope John Paul II, suspension bridges, the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building, the New York Stock Exchange, nightclubs, airports, embassies, hotels, nuclear power plants, oil tankers, and the Panama Canal. At the hearing, he framed these plots as acts of war and argued that there was no moral difference between him and his captors:
What I wrote here … I’m not making myself hero, when I said I was responsible for this or that. But you are military man. You know very well there are language for any war. … If America, they want to invade Iraq, they will not send for Saddam roses or kisses. They send for a bombardment. … So when we made any war against America we are jackals fighting in the nights. … As consider George Washington as hero, Muslims, many of them, are considering Osama bin Laden. He is doing same thing. He is just fighting. … When I said I’m not happy that three thousand been killed in America. I feel sorry even. I don’t like to kill children and kids … killing, as in the Christianity, Jews, and Islam, are prohibited. But there are exceptions to the rule when you are killing people in Iraq. You said “we have to do it.” We don’t like Saddam. But this is the way to deal with Saddam. Same thing you are saying. Same language you use, I use.
Before his execution for the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh made similar arguments—that what he did was no different from what governments do in times of war. In their “Islamic Response” filing, the Accused cite Hiroshima and Nagasaki as part of their reply to the charge of attacking civilians. Rather than deny the charge of terrorism, they assert that “America is the terrorist country number one in the world. [It] has nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and the hydrogen bombs … threatening countries’ safety and security.”
I would say that you cannot justify some “X” through favorable comparison to some “Y,” if that “Y” is already known to be bad. If the U.S. is indeed better than the terrorists, then the U.S. leadership shouldn’t have to resort to not-as-bad-as logic to justify U.S. policy. Nevertheless, they do:
Donald Rumsfeld, 2004, attempting to justify the military’s treatment of detainees:
“Does it rank up there with chopping someone’s head off on television? It doesn’t.”
Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, 2012, on drones strikes:
“The bottom line in the end is—whose four-year-old gets killed? What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that four-year-olds here are gonna get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.”
John Yoo, 2010, arguing for the president’s power to order the massacre of civilians:
“If, I thought it was military necessary … all you have to do is look at American history … look at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Henry Stimson, 1947, attempting to justify Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
“Additional fire raids of B-29’s would have been more destructive of life and property … this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.”
Rumsfeld echoed Stimson when he called Guantánamo “the least worst place we could have selected.” When the best we can do is to call ourselves the least worst, it should be taken as a sign that we are much worse than we might realize.