The Trials of the Century

By Lawrence Wright, the author of “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22/09/06):

The fifth anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone, but there was a conspicuous figure missing from the retrospectives and commentaries: Osama bin Laden.

Al Qaeda’s founder has clearly been marginalized even in his own movement, as other jihadist spokesmen, Ayman al-Zawahri and an American, Adam Gadahn, issued threats and demanded that Americans convert to Islam. Meantime, Pakistan has negotiated a truce with tribal chiefs promising to keep troops out of the Waziristan districts, where the leadership of Al Qaeda may be hiding, and the C.I.A. has closed Alec Station, the unit devoted to finding Mr. bin Laden. He is the forgotten man.

Fortunately, there are still some members of the American intelligence community who are interested in the terrorist’s whereabouts. Not long ago one of them approached me — not because of my reporting on Al Qaeda but because of my experience as a Hollywood screenwriter, a talent pool the C.I.A. occasionally draws on for futurist thinking. The official asked me to envision what we would do with Mr. bin Laden if we caught him. I said that I didn’t feel comfortable, as a reporter, writing a script for the C.I.A.

I have given the idea some thought, however. Osama bin Laden is arguably the most famous man alive, and his name will resound through history. If we do have the good fortune of actually capturing him, the manner in which we bring him to justice will make a critical difference in the way in which his legacy will unfold. Here is my scenario for how this movie could end.

First, don’t kill him. He’d become a martyr instantly, which is of course his goal. His death at the hands of Americans would be the ideal finale from a Qaeda perspective. Deny him that victory at all costs.

And, please, don’t send him to Guantánamo or torture him in an undisclosed location. That route leads to his becoming a symbol of resistance to the erosion of the American legal system. The world will want to know what happens to him, and if he is hidden away, or subjected to a secret trial, then his reputation will soar as ours plummets. He has to be accorded the civilized treatment that he and his movement would never offer their enemies.

But don’t bring him to the United States to answer for his crimes, at least not at the beginning. His followers would never accept the verdict of an American court. And, more to the point, neither would hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Muslims who sympathize with him and his cause. It’s that audience that we have to address in our attempt to roll back Mr. bin Laden’s awful legacy.

Moreover, if he were tried in an American court, one can easily envision wide-scale attacks on American holdings and Americans being held for ransom in exchange for the terrorist leader. Placing him in the dock of the World Court would involve similar risks, and could lead to the sort of prolonged trial that sees him dying of natural causes, as in the case of Slobodan Milosevic.

We should, instead, offer him to the authorities in Kenya, where, on Aug. 7, 1998, a Qaeda suicide bomber murdered 213 people in the attack on the American Embassy. More than 150 people were blinded by flying glass in the attack — most of them Africans who were in or near the embassy or the secretarial school across the street, which was flattened by the blast. Let Mr. bin Laden sit in a courtroom in Nairobi and explain to those blind Africans that he was aiming only at an icon of American power.

Then take him to Tanzania, where on the same August morning Al Qaeda hit another American Embassy, killing 11 people, most of them Muslims. The terrorists excused the murder of their co-religionists by saying that the bombing took place on a Friday, when good Muslims should have been in a mosque. That would be an excellent venue to pose the question of what Islam really stands for.

Thus exposed as a mass murderer of Africans who had no part in his quarrel with America, Mr. bin Laden would be ready to stand trial for the bombing of the American destroyer Cole and, of course, 9/11. By treating him as a criminal defendant instead of a enemy combatant, we could underline the differences between a civil society and the Taliban-like rule he seeks to impose on Muslim countries and eventually the entire world.

Mr. bin Laden could go on to many other venues to answer for his crimes — Istanbul, Casablanca, Madrid, London, Islamabad — but in my opinion there is an obvious last stop on his tour of justice: his homeland, Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of his countrymen and expatriate workers have died at the hands of Al Qaeda. There he would be tried in a Shariah court, the only law he would ever recognize.

If he were found guilty, he would be taken to a park in the middle of downtown Riyadh known as “Chop Chop Square.” There, the executioner would greet him with his long, heavy sword at his side. It is a Saudi tradition that the executioner personally beseeches the audience, composed of the victims of the condemned man’s crimes, to forgive the condemned. If they cannot, the executioner will carry out his task. After that, Osama bin Laden’s body would be taken to an unmarked tomb in a Wahhabi graveyard, as he would have wanted.

There are other ways this movie could end, and as a screenwriter I can’t say that any of them are “happy” in the conventional Hollywood sense. But drama demands resolution, in real life as well as fiction. Since the Greeks, dramatists have known that a good ending is one that acknowledges the longing of the audience for justice and the sense that order has been restored.

I think the American intelligence community would be wise to pay attention to those ancient artistic dictates. The role that Osama bin Laden has cast himself in is that of the hero to Muslims who feel slighted by history and victimized by the West. It is a legend that could last for hundreds of years and inspire many generations of future terrorists. By turning his actions in other parts of the world against him, we can justly put that legend to rest.