Reviews > Culture

Outlaw 'detainees'

Culture | Al-Qaeda terrorists are receiving even more than they deserve

Issue: "Illegal siblings project," Feb. 2, 2002

Christianity is pretty much the only religion that sees war as in any way problematic. The paganism of ancient civilizations and tribal cultures today has always treated war as its lifeblood. The key Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, hinges on a warrior giving up his qualms about slaughtering his enemies in an unjust war to plunge into the fray to fulfill his caste obligations and to recognize the illusory quality of all life.

Buddhism addresses suffering not so much by mitigating it but by detaching the consciousness from it, a stance that allows for both passive endurance and the martial arts of the samurai. As for Islam, holy wars have always been a prime means of outreach.

Christianity, though, treasures peace, love of enemy, and nonviolence. As military historian Victor Davis Hanson shows in Culture and Carnage, as Christians changed from being a persecuted minority to the cultural rulers who had to defend their people against attacks-particularly from Muslim invaders-the vocation of Christian warrior developed.

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Christians remained morally ambivalent about war, as Mr. Hanson shows, but that did not prevent them from waging war on a monumentally effective scale. Just as they had done with kings, making the human authority subject to higher law, the Christians brought law to war in all of its sinful brutality.

Augustine set forth moral requirements for a just war, and this tradition continued in more modern times with treaties-including the Geneva Conventions-to place legal limits on acts of war.

They certainly were not always followed, in the throes of the world wars, and they did not prevent the West from practicing what Mr. Hanson describes as its unique brand of total, relentless military domination. But these laws of war did distinguish between combatants and noncombatants and set standards for the humane treatment of prisoners.

How do these laws apply in an age of terrorism? Many Americans are worried about violating human rights by locking up Afghans in cages at Guantanamo, trying accused terrorists in military tribunals, and dropping daisy cutters on defenseless enemies.

First, each of the requirements for Augustine's just war-having just cause, being initiated by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used-was violated by al-Qaeda. Conversely, the American response meets each of the requirements.

The Geneva Conventions require that lawful combatants, among other things, must wear uniforms. This "robe of office" distinguishes a soldier, who is acting under the authority of his government, from a common criminal. They also must have their weapons out in the open. Combatants in civilian clothes, with hidden weapons, creating mayhem against civilians in noncombat zones enjoy no protection under the laws of war. Spies, pirates, and terrorists are not POWs.

The American government describes the terrorists captured in Afghanistan as "detainees"-- not granting them the status of military prisoners of war--but officials say that they will be treated according to the Geneva Conventions.

Isn't moving them to the other side of the world and threatening to try them in military tribunals a violation of their human rights? On the contrary, the Geneva Conventions require such treatment.

According to Article 23, "No prisoner of war may at any time be sent to, or detained in areas where he may be exposed to the fire of the combat zone."

According to Article 84, "A prisoner of war shall be tried only by a military court," unless the laws of the land would try its own military members for the same offense. POWs need to be protected from an angry civilian court, the Geneva signers believed, obviously not thinking of the slick lawyers, media circuses, and lenient judges of a contemporary courtroom.

There are two main ways the prisoners are not treated as POWs under the Geneva Convention. Their housing is supposed to be similar to that of their captors. But barracks must be out of the question for al-Qaeda terrorists, because many of them have already risen up to kill their captors in Afghanistan. Also, POWs have to be released once the hostilities are over-but for these global al-Qaeda operatives, the hostilities don't end until death.

POWs are entitled to food, health care, and religious freedom. While they can be interrogated, they may not be tortured. POWs may even try to escape, which can result in "discipline," but not summary execution. Combatants, though, who take up arms after surrendering-as American John Walker Lindh and his

al-Qaeda friends did-can expect no mercy. And yet, they are receiving mercy anyway.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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