Saturday, March 17, 2007

For trials, not tribunals

From the Boston Globe, an editorial that voices something I have been thinking and saying since September, 2001:


March 16, 2007

IN HIS Guantanamo hearing, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed embraced the "enemy combatant" label that President Bush invented for Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects. That ought to make Americans wary of the novel judicial process there.

Mohammed, the self-identified military operations chief of Al Qaeda, admitted during a recent hearing before the Combatant Status Review Tribunal that he organized the Sept. 11 attacks and many other terrorist actions. In the transcript, he describes himself as a man at war, for religious reasons, with an enemy who has invaded Muslim lands. In his fractured English, he compares Al Qaeda's terrorist attacks to World War I, World War II, and the American war for independence against the British.

Killing, he argues, is the language of all wars. His implication is that his murdering of children and innocent civilians in the World Trade Center and the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing is no different from the conventional wars waged by nation-states.

Mohammed's attempt to normalize his despicable acts should be laughable, but it is furthered by the Guantanamo hearings -- a process outside both the American civil legal system and the Geneva Conventions . The special tribunals that Bush has conjured up are harmful not only because they deprive the accused of the fair trials guaranteed in American courtrooms and of the rights that a court-martial grants to US soldiers and foreign prisoners of war alike. The Bush tribunals also are misconceived because they elevate deluded fanatics like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed into the imposing military foes they would like to be -- instead of the vicious political criminals they really are.

This is how Mohammed justified his terrorism: "We consider we and George Washington doing same thing. As consider George Washington as hero. Muslims many of them are considering Osama bin Laden. He is doing same thing. He is just fighting. . . . So when we say we are enemy combatant, that right. We are."

The guilt of the terrorist known as KSM could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in any civil courtroom or military tribunal sanctioned by the Geneva Conventions. By not giving him and other detainees a fair trial, Bush makes their case for the hypocrisy of the secular democracies. Many detainees picked up in Afghanistan had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and it is particularly embarrassing for Americans that Mohammed has to be the one to plead for them. Americans should not have to be told about injustice by a creature like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.


mrjumbo said...

Dim gray lines separate criminals from terrorists from guerrillas from army regulars.

Was Tim McVeigh a criminal or a freedom fighter? His self-declared intent was not to murder but to incite revolution.

Were the farmers and villagers at Lexington and Concord a rabble of terrorists? What separates them from Sadr's militia?

When Israeli tractor drivers destroy the house of a family whose son was a suicide bomber, are they acting on behalf of a legitimate army, or is the attack on civilians a terrorist act?

Is the Palestinian Authority entitled to raise an army? Or if they go around shooting people, are they terrorists? Or just criminals?

Does a government have to be recognized by the U.N. to be legitimate? What government are refugees entitled to? Does a government have to sanction violence for it to be an act of a legitimate warrior, or can an unrepresented people legitimately raise up arms on their own?

From Chechnya to Rwanda, from El Salvador to Oklahoma City, these are not easy problems to disentangle.

There are good and interesting cases to be made on all sides of the above questions; I'm not presuming any answers.

But it strikes me that the U.S. does not fare better in the long or short run by abandoning the moral high ground. Might does not make right, and the U.S. has squandered a lot of right since 2001.

Self-righteous and smarmy we may be, but when a country abandons due process and the Geneva Conventions and turn to techniques like torture to get its way, it jeopardizes its citizens at home and abroad.

Uniquely among nations, the U.S. is not held together by geographic history or shared ethnic ties or cultural tradition or religious unanimity. The U.S. was founded on high-minded concepts, and along with shared economic interest that's the string that holds it together today. If France abandons the Geneva Convention, the French are still French. But if the U.S. dissolves the Constitution, its citizens become no more than North Americans.

Andrew Shields said...

You nailed it at the end of your comment:

Moral high ground is important.

Jeopardy of citizens (or, since the US govt. only thinks of expats as subjects of taxation, of soldiers).

Betrayal of the country's reasons to exist.