Last week, Congress overrode a bill that President Obama had previously vetoed. The legislation deals with 9/11 victims’ families having the ability to sue Saudi Arabia in a U.S. court for damages related to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Though the bill itself only became law days ago, the idea behind it has actually been around for a while. As one can imagine, 9/11 families have demanded justice from the U.S. government for years, citing the untold losses that they suffered on one of the worst days in American history.
Their grief and anger are obviously understandable and completely warranted. They want what anyone else in their positon would want: the men who derailed their lives to be held accountable and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
But it is a truly unfortunate and heartbreaking fact that even the heinous and unthinkable crimes that those men perpetrated on that day must not be tried in American courts.
Sovereign immunity, the legal principle which prevents American citizens from filing lawsuits against foreign governments or officials in U.S. courts, is a doctrine that we should show extreme reticence to waive, if not complete intransigence.
In fact, the only time the statute allows for lawsuits against foreign governments or officials is when the U.S. State Department designates the group as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Some see the bill as consistent with this doctrine, seeing as 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and there is albeit circumstantial and anecdotal evidence that people of Saudi origin may have provided aid to some of the hijackers in the days leading up to the attacks.
However, “The Economist” recently reported that there is absolutely “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution was involved” with the attacks. This information, though, is not new at all. The U.S. government itself, with the release of the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004, publicly acknowledged and made statements to the effect that the government of Saudi Arabia was not involved in the events of 9/11.
The narrative put forth by the Commission was that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were responsible for 9/11 —the intelligence, they affirmed, made it very clear that this terrorist organization, not the Saudi government, deserved culpability. There is no reason to doubt those assertions. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the events, and all 19 of the men were affiliated with the group.
Therefore, a line of logic like the one that supporters of the bill, which is known officially as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, present is puzzling at its best and incoherent at its worst. In allowing for private citizens to sue foreign governments in American courts, the U.S. government is effectively contradicting itself.
The bill, as it is currently written, essentially declares Saudi Arabia a state sponsor of terrorism. Given what we know about Saudi Arabia’s connection to the 9/11 attacks, such a classification is obviously troubling.
Furthermore, even if one could definitely prove that a small number of Saudis did provide aid in some form to the hijackers, that revelation would scarcely constitute a “state sponsor of terrorism” designation for the Saudi government. There is an enormous and important distinction between individual citizens acting of their own volition and sanctioned government action to assist known terrorists.
The law exists as a calcified set of rules, and it cannot be overturned because of the desires of a few families, regardless of how justified those requests might be. In a theoretical sense, the bill represents a betrayal of precedent. In a pragmatic sense, the bill practically invites problematic developments.
Numerous entities — whether they are the intelligence community, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or even the head of General Electric —have strongly advised against the bill’s passage and have said that it “could put U.S. soldiers, personnel, and broader economic and diplomatic interests overseas in jeopardy.”
Moreover, the veto override also accentuates how spineless Congress as an institution has really become. While some have duly noted that it would be difficult to vote against a bill that calls for “justice for 9/11 families,” we must remember that we do not elect our Congressional representatives to make easy decisions.
We call on them, perhaps more than anything else, to make the right choice, irrespective of whether that choice is popular or not. Granted, they of course have to make popular decisions to get elected, but when legal precedent and practical consequence hang in the balance, we expect them to rise above their selfish wishes and do what they know to be best for the country.
Members of Congress knew full well that the bill would invite endless litigation. They voted in favor of it because the idea of voting against 9/11 families seemed inconceivable.
But if they could express solidarity in monolithically supporting the legislation, they certainly could have done the same in opposing it. That would have sent a powerful message to both the 9/11 families and the public at large.
Yet sadly, that message will likely never be conveyed, and only time will tell how much damage this new legislation will cause.