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National Security | Support for holding terrorist trials in New York City continues to unravel

NEW YORK-On Dec. 5, 2009, thousands of angry New Yorkers met downtown outside the building where the federal government said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be tried.

David Beamer, the father of Todd Beamer, who helped stop terrorists aiming a plane at a target in Washington, warned Obama, "It will be Sept. 11 the sequel. Right this wrong. Stop this attack." Ed Lubbock, whose brother died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said, "We do not want [Mohammed] and his fellow terrorists tried in that building."

Speakers yelled, "Are you angry?" Protestors shouted, "Treason!" and booed a video montage of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. One sign showed a photo of an innocent-looking child and asked, "Why give terrorists the rights of U.S. citizens they are sworn to kill?" Another sign showed a sketch of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed alongside a sketch of a U.S. soldier, with the words, "Not peers. Not morally equivalent."

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That protest came and went, but nearly all public support for a terrorist trial in New York City has unraveled over the past several weeks. Elected officials have taken notice now that they've seen the strain a terrorist trial likely will take on an already-struggling city.

Last Wednesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that he no longer wanted the trial to take place in New York: "It would be great if the federal government could find a site that didn't cost a billion dollars, which using downtown will, and it will also affect business and commerce and people's lives downtown." Earlier, Bloomberg wrote a letter requesting that the federal government reimburse New York City for the trial's security costs, which would be more than $200 million per year and could total over $1 billion, depending on how long the trial lasts. Obama's budget allocates $200 million for such trials, but other concerns remain.

In a speech to the Police Foundation, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the trials could strain the city's police force-already a sore point since Bloomberg has said the proposed state budget cuts would force the city to lay off 9 percent of its police force, shrinking it to its smallest size since 1985. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) have criticized the administration's decision to saddle New York City with the cost of a trial, and King has proposed a bill that would ban the Justice Department from spending money on civilian trials for Guantanamo Bay detainees. The Real Estate Board of New York has added to the furor with a new website, MoveTheTrial.com.

Aaron Harison, executive director of Keep America Safe and part of the 9/11 Never Forget Coalition that organized the Dec. 5 protest, credits public pressure from constituents for the change of hearts of politicians. Legislators whose "knee-jerk reaction" was to support the trials have changed their minds: "They saw over time, and they heard from their constituents that this was a terrible idea." Besides the expense, the disruption, the "propagandist's dream" of a trial thronged with media, and the security concerns, there's also the trauma, said Harison: "In a way it's almost another attack when you consider these guys will be given a platform right next door, and in the faces of the people they hurt. It's almost unconscionable."

That's how the protesters felt last December. Louis Spina was at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sept. 11, 2001, and operated the heavy machinery that dug through the rubble of the fallen World Trade Center. He said he joined the protest "to have a voice, to let other people know that this is a war crime and I don't think they deserve to be tried as civilians, as citizens of the United States." He said, "I'm a New Yorker. I was born here so it kind of touches pretty deep."

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