Let the cameras roll. The trial of Zacarias Moussaoui may not be as melodramatic as O.J. Simpson’s with all the sex and California dreaming, but Americans deserve to watch justice at work for a man charged as an enemy of the people. The major reason for televising it is to see justice done.
Television can offer a significant perspective on how the judicial system handles the enormous implications of a charge of conspiracy to commit international terrorism.
Cameras all cameras, including the cameras of newspaper photographers are barred from federal courtrooms and the idea of letting them in for this trial suggests, to some, images of the Roman circus (or at least a Southern California circus). Lawyers, judges and witnesses have been known to act as though they’re pursuing an Academy Award rather than the pursuit of justice.
But this trial will be in Virginia, not California, and it’s not about a football hero and movie star. A firm judge can control proceedings. The O.J. Simpson trial, for all of its shenanigans, looked different to the jurors than to most Americans, who typically sent out for carry-out rather than leave the screen for lunch. Many of us who thought that the verdict was crazy understood how good and bad lawyers and a weak judge can make a difference, and skew results. No small insight. I’ve opposed cameras in the courtroom in the past.
Television can be abusive, dumbing down important issues, but it can be a neutral medium think C-SPAN and we owe it to ourselves to see this trial for many reasons. The Bush administration bungled the way it called for military tribunals for certain terrorists, raising suspicions here and throughout the world that we might not be capable of organizing a fair trial for a terrorist. The president believes that military tribunals are sometimes appropriate, but he emphatically said that Zacarias Moussaoui is no candidate for such justice. Letting the world watch our judicial system at work will do much to quiet those critics who claim that Moussaoui can’t get a fair trial in the United States. Even his mother can watch.
A very restrictive exception to the ban on cameras in the federal courtroom was made in the Oklahoma City bombing trial, with closed-circuit television permitted to allow the victims’ families to watch in a guarded room. The Senate has unanimously approved legislation to authorize a similar arrangement for the Moussaoui trial; the House has yet to consider it. The reasoning in Oklahoma City rested heavily on psychological issues of “closure.” But more importantly, the victims’ families wanted to see that justice was done. In the trial of Mr. Moussaoui, who is accused of being the “20th hijacker,” many Americans will want to act as surrogate family of those innocents killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a field near Pittsburgh. The attack threatened all of us.
The Moussaoui trial is about a specific crime against the United States. But terrorism threatens everyone everywhere. In 1960, Israelis heard Adolf Eichmann’s feeble defense against the charge that he conspired to slaughter Jews in the Nazi death camps. Though he conceded guilt from “a human point of view,” he testified, employing cold Satanic double-talk, “I do not admit to being an accomplice in the murder of Jews from a legal point of view.” Judge, jury and the world could see for themselves the transparency of his argument.
The objections to cameras in the federal courtroom here are nevertheless strong. In addition to the fear that cameras would turn the trial into cheap theater, personal and public security could be compromised. But, with care, such security can be protected. The Classified Information Procedures Act, which governs behavior, is very specific and the rules could be enforced to the letter. Effective electronic disguises for faces and voices are readily available. Jurors need not be shown on camera. Sensitive information should be withheld from the public, but that’s up to the judge whether cameras are there or not.
The case for televising this trial is not about the “information” it will transmit, but about justice, for the whole world to see. It doesn’t diminish the argument to note that we will also be watching history at work, experiencing the law as it pertains to larger concepts of universal moral and legal significance and responsibility. Newspaper, magazine and television commentary of any trial influences interpretations, opinions and insights of the public, but the focus of the lens can, at its best, offer a different kind of illumination forcing each of us to think for ourselves.
TV cameras are much smaller than they once were, but the bright light cameras can shower on truth and justice, good and evil, is large, indeed.