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That Sound Was the Courtroom Door Slamming Shut

April 12th, 2008 - 3:39 pm

Following up on my Thursday blogpost, “Will the 9/11 Lawsuits Unlock Secrets of Osama Bin Laden’s Trust Fund?” — well, let’s not write off that we might yet learn more. But the main thing I can report on Friday’s court hearing is that we must now wait outside closed doors to see what, if anything, might emerge.

I went to the hearing Friday morning; U.S. Magistrate Judge Frank Maas presiding. It was held in one of the smaller courtrooms of the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan — furnished with three rows of standard-issue wooden benches for spectators, blurry gold renditions of Justice Department logos on the blue wall-to-wall carpeting, and gauzy curtains over windows looking out from the 20th floor on the landscape that 6-1/2 years ago was covered in the debris of the World Trade Center. There were more people on the legal teams assembled before the judge than there were in the spectator seats — and most of the spectators turned out to be connected with the legal teams in any event.

I know that because just as things started to get interesting, the lawyers for the defendants raised concerns about the privacy of their clients. Judge Maas asked if anyone in the courtoom was with the press, or otherwise not associated with the legal teams. From the back row bench where I had been watching the proceedings, I raised my hand, and was politely questioned by one of the lawyers, who confirmed to the judge that I was a member of the press. Judge Maas politely asked all members of the press, or others not associated with the case, to leave the room. And so, I left.

On my way back to the subway, just down the block from the federal courthouse, I passed by a scene of wreckage, yellow police tape, and milling spectators, where a car had jumped the curb, hit a vendor cart and slammed into the steps of the state Supreme Court (NY Post story with photos here). Apparently it was an accident; the driver told the cops he had suffered a seizure at the wheel. But the scene, with the car jammed into the courthouse steps, and bits of the battered vendor cart scattered across the sidewalk, did invite thoughts of the many vehicles, in places from Lebanon to Kenya to Tanzania to Iraq, that have been used with deliberate intent and horrific effect to kill Americans and our friends and allies. It brought back memories of the many times, between the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, that in my comings and going from the subway stops that used to open into the Twin Towers basement concourse, I wondered if the buildings would be hit again. I feared they would. Like many, I did not foresee that the attack would come by way of hijacked airplanes.

… Anyway, having been ejected from the 9/11 hearing, I took the subway to midtown to look in on a demonstration held by Amnesty International in front of the Libyan Mission to the UN. Lots of young people holding up signs and chanting demands that Libya’s regime free the long-detained democratic dissident, Fathi Eljahmi. On some things I disagree with Amnesty, but on this one, I am entirely with them, and have written about Fathi Eljahmi periodically over the past four years — starting during the brief interval in 2004 when he was freed from prison and spoke up for pluralism in Libya. I rang the bell of the Libyan Mission, to ask if they had any response to the hundreds of protesters shouting at them from across the street. But the Libyan Mission had locked its doors — except to a harried-looking pair, a man and a woman, presumably staff, each clutching a cup of takeout coffee, who during the protest raced up the steps, flashed their tags and zipped inside.

From there, I strolled over to Rockefeller Center, with its flowerbeds and fluttering flags and shops crammed with the luxuries of modern life. The wide sidewalks were jammed with people enjoying the spring afternoon, browsing the shop windows, posing for family photos in front of New York landmarks. On one corner, high above the crowd, was the latest report on Iran’s nuclear program — a wire story rolling by in red neon letters on a big NBC news scrollbar, detailing, as one word after another emerged into public view, that Iran claims to have installed another 500 centrifuges at its Natanz uranium enrichment complex, and is further speeding up production that could be used for nuclear bombs. In the Manhattan throng, no one seemed to be paying much attention.

And so, on the breezy eve of a spring weekend in Manhattan, I left that lively scene, hoping fervently that a great many Americans amid the pleasures and the political sparring of the season will make time to read the superb and important book due to be published this coming Monday by Andrew McCarthy, “Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad.” (Full disclosure: Andy McCarthy is one of my colleagues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies). Andy knows a lot about the federal courtrooms of Manhattan; in the mid-1990s he was the lead prosecutor of the Blind Sheikh and 11 other jihadists involved in the plot that included the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. In his book, Andy McCarthy warns of the dangers of averting our eyes from the war of Islamist terror being waged against us, and of the folly of delegating to our courts the job of serving as the frontline of defense.

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