It’s not a good time to be in Cuba. Not because of any hurricane or even Fidel. For the first time in the Obama administration, officials may soon be able to open new cases against Guantanamo Bay detainees.

But this is a time for celebration, right? These men will finally face justice. Not quite.

After the backlash against efforts to put detainees on trial in New York, and Congress’s latest move to prevent any Gitmo residents from being held in the U.S., it now looks as if detainees will face military tribunals instead of civilian courts.

Aside from avoiding any dangers associated with bringing terrorist suspects to U.S. soil, military tribunals have a number of “advantages” over civilian courts. Tribunals will accept hearsay evidence and can conduct business away from pesky courtroom reporters.

These differences obviously make it easier to get a conviction, but our sacrifice is not a small one.

One of the guiding principles of the American justice system is that all men are equal under the law. By following our own rule of law only when it suits our purpose we are sacrificing the legitimacy of our justice system.

Even when the United States was just a group of rag-tag colonies we were laying the foundation of our judicial system, and we should look to that history to guide us now. On March 5, 1770 five Americans were killed by a group of British soldiers in what is known as the Boston Massacre. Despite a political climate that would eventually lead to a new country, the British soldiers had their day in court.

Not only did the soldiers get a trial, they got one in Boston, and a top-notch lawyer. John Adams, who was vice president under George Washington and the second president of the U.S., defended the soldiers even in the face of great financial and personal risk. He later called his defense of the British soldiers, “one of the most gallant, generous, many, and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”

Adams had faith in the rule of law. When punishment comes from the law it is justice, but when it comes by circumventing the law it is only revenge.

Not allowing terror suspects into our courts sends a clear message that we do not have faith in our courts, and laws, or worse, that we are breaking our laws.

Further, tribunals rob the public of a chance to learn just how these cases are being handled. Without a public trial we relinquish our rights to discuss and criticize the policies and practices of our government—what some might call democracy.

We need to learn from our past. Our country’s history is rich with examples like the Boston Massacre, and more recent history too offers lessons we can apply. If the last decade of fighting “terror” can teach us anything, our excursion into Iraq should leave us with the hard-earned knowledge that ignorance isn’t always bliss.

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