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The Sentencing of "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid:
Its Larger Significance for Terrorism Cases andThe "War on Terrorism" In General


Monday, Feb. 03, 2003

From the beginning, the U.S. government has framed the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 as a "war on terrorism" - not, by comparison, as a response to a tremendous crime. Accordingly, the Administration has openly questioned the ability of our traditional criminal justice system to combat the terrorist threat. As an alternative, it has proposed military tribunals, and defended its incommunicado detentions of suspected terrorists in military prisons and at Guantanamo Bay.

But the "war" analogy has its limitations - as was shown last week in Boston, at the sentencing of alleged "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. There, both a federal district court judge and a recalcitrant terrorist provided tremendous insight into both the limitations of the analogy, and the magnitude of the threat that the terrorist enemy still poses.

The Judge's Pronouncement: Reid Was Not a Soldier, But A Culprit

As many readers will recall, in December 2001, Reid - a 29-year-old British citizen - tried to light a fuse to set off explosives concealed in his shoes on an American Airlines Flight from Paris to Miami. (The explosive was triacetone triperoxide, also known as "mother of Satan".) Fortunately, flight attendants and passengers were able to subdue him before any damage was done.

Reid subsequently pled guilty to eight counts of terrorism-related offenses and, last week, on January 30, in a packed and secured courthouse overlooking the city's Harbor, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In his final statement to Richard Reid during the sentencing, presiding Judge William Young told him that he was neither an enemy combatant, nor a soldier in any war. Terrorists like Reid are simply men, he suggested, not demons - just men who are facing justice. They cannot dignify themselves with the title of "soldier," but at the same time, they represent a face of humanity, not a face of evil. Indeed, Judge Young concluded, "all this war talk is way out of line" in a court of law.

Judge Young's Pretrial Rulings Reflected a Balanced View

Young's handling of the case and pretrial rulings was true to these sentiments. It also provides sound guidelines for how terrorism trials can work - and why military tribunals may well be unnecessary.

The court understood the clear national security implications of convicting a violent terrorist in a United States courtroom. Because terrorists often communicate in code, for example, the judge did not require a search warrant to review Reid's emails to focus on exact words or phrases. Reid had sought to defeat the warrant on the grounds that it was overbroad. Yet the court properly recognized the absurdity in requiring a warrant to specify keywords like "bomb", "detonate" or "mass murder."

While cognizant of the government's need to search broadly, the judge also respected the defendant's rights. Thus, the court was quick to censure the government when it sought to curb communication between Reid and his attorneys based on a memorandum provided by the Attorney General, and when it moved his location without notifying his counsel. The court insisted, properly, that Reid have his rightful access to his attorneys.

The court also made sure the defendant was not unfairly prejudiced by evidence unrelated to his case. In one of his more caustic moments during the sentencing hearing, Judge Young reprimanded the government for releasing a 1997 videotape of a bomb exploding in an airplane - stating that it was misleading, and certainly irrelevant to the specific case at hand.

In a Sense, the Reid Case Still Continues

There is much to admire in Judge Young's balancing of the competing interests in this case. But, it would be misleading to assume that the Reid case is now closed. Reid himself is a constant reminder of a continuing threat.

Because Reid was unable to light the detonator on his shoe, he has become a kind of laughing stock. But the caricature is terribly misleading. Reid is no idiot - as his comments at sentencing proven.

The depth of Reid's convictions is tremendously disconcerting. Faced with a lifetime in jail, Reid refused to offer any apology for his actions. And prior to sentencing, Reid refused to cooperate with prosecutors. Accordingly, they have been forced to try to fill in many of the blanks without his help.

While there have been several related arrests in Britain and France, the Reid case remains a web of inconclusive facts and disturbing coincidences. Reid, a high school dropout, likely did not plan the attack. And a palm print and piece of hair on his shoes, not belonging to Reid, suggest that at least one co-conspirator was involved in the packaging. Reid's emails, too, showed that others were involved: a man only identified by Reid in an email as his "brother", was to send out emails saved on Reid's Yahoo account after Reid's martyrdom. The emails were never sent, and the "brother" has never been found.

Other evidence also suggests Reid's connection to a larger terrorist group. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was killed in Pakistan while following Reid's trail in that country. And at some stage during his transient life, Reid ended up in a militant mosque in Britain that was, at the same time, being frequented by Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged would-be twentieth September 11 hijacker. Recently, the same mosque was raided because of its alleged links to a planned poisonous ricin attack in Britain's subways.

The Reid Case's True Legacy

The Reid case, then, may someday become a piece of a larger puzzle we have yet to see in its entirety. Whether or not that occurs, the case will have an important legacy: It shows that our justice system can still function well even in the face of serious national security threats.

After all, the court heard all of Reid's speeches about Islam and his duty to die. It was privy to all the classified information regarding this dangerous man and these dangerous times. It understood that there were, and are, many others who likely planned and knew of Reid's intentions. In sum, the court had every reason to believe that "war" was the appropriate analogy - but the judge still chose to view, and treat, Reid as a defendant, not a solider.

Ironically, the way Reid was treated by U.S. courts was the clearest measure of the very liberties he so abhorred. The judge's reminder to prosecutors, and the audience, that Reid was defendant entitled to fair treatment, not a "soldier" in a "war," will be the enduring lesson of last week's sentencing hearing.

Juliette Kayyem, a national security and law expert at the Kennedy School of Government, was a member of the National Commission on Terrorism and a former attorney at the Department of Justice. She attended the Reid sentencing.

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