Trial by Ferry

January 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm Leave a comment

There is nothing wrong with holding the trial of the man who has described himself as the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, in federal court in New York. But there is something wrong with spending upward of $200 million per year on security for a multiyear trial and disrupting the lives of people who have homes and jobs in Lower Manhattan, where the trial is to be held. Fortunately, there is a relatively easy solution to this problem: Governors Island.

Conducting the Mohammed trial there would not be the first time the 172-acre island, situated in the East River off Lower Manhattan, has been used for law enforcement. Before the federal government sold the island to New York State in 2003, it had long been a military installation. During the Civil War, enlisted Confederate soldiers were imprisoned in its fortress-like Castle Williams; officers were held in Fort Jay (at the time called Fort Columbus). After the Civil War, Castle Williams was a military stockade. British and American forces used the island for more than 200 years precisely because it was so easy to secure.

Residents of Lower Manhattan who live close to the federal courthouse where the trial is to be held have rightly expressed concern about the safety measures that will be needed. They argue persuasively that a community that has already dealt with some of the worst aspects of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks — years of rebuilding, environmental hazards and security checkpoints — should not have to face additional burdens. This epic courtroom drama, they say, should not be played out in the midst of a dense residential and office neighborhood.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and elected officials like Senator Charles Schumer correctly insist that the federal government pay for the entire cost of the trials. However, they have not addressed the central question of whether, in the midst of an economic recession, it makes sense for anyone to spend more than $200 million on security.

Enough questions have been raised that it is worth urging Attorney General Eric Holder to vet other locations for the federal trial — beyond the courthouse — and to reassess costs and security issues with the police.

As part of that vetting, Governors Island should be given serious consideration. The island has no residents and few office workers. Access is by ferry only, which should enhance security and thus potentially reduce costs.

Though a trial date has not yet been set, Mr. Holder needs to move swiftly to ensure that the Governors Island option receives thorough consideration. Preserving the values of democracy and the rule of law are of the utmost importance, and a federal trial in New York, which I fully support, certainly accomplishes that. Let us show the world that these values are of paramount importance not by imposing an extravagant ring of steel around a community that is still rebounding from 9/11, but rather by selecting a far safer, less expensive and arguably more appropriately historic location.

Julie Menin is the chairwoman of Community Board 1, which covers Lower Manhattan and Governors Island.

New York Times
OpEd

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