The Geneva Conventions and the War on Terror

THE GENEVA CONVENTIONS AND THE WAR ON TERROR….I mentioned something in passing on Sunday that I think deserves a full airing today. Four months after 9/11, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote a memo to President Bush recommending that we not abide by the Geneva Conventions in the war on terror:

“As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war,” Gonzales wrote to Bush. “The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians.” Gonzales concluded in stark terms: “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.”

This strikes me as an issue that everyone ? pro-war and anti-war alike ? ought to take a firm stand on: should the Geneva Conventions apply to prisoners captured in the war on terror or not?

Gonzales’ reasoning is appealing but misguided, I think. After all, every generation believes at one time or another that the enemies they face are so savage, so fundamentally different from any that have come before that old rules of conduct no longer apply. Every generation also turns out to be wrong. The reality is that the Taliban is not more dangerous than the Cold War Soviets, who in turn were not more dangerous than the Nazis. If we were willing to treat prisoners decently in those conflicts, why not now?

The ability to “quickly obtain information” from captured prisoners has been a critical part of every war, but we nonetheless agreed half a century ago to place this under strict limits. This was not because we felt the wars of that era were unimportant, or because we deluded ourselves into believing that our enemies would always follow suit, but because we wanted to set a standard of simple human decency for ourselves and others.

So: should the Geneva Conventions apply to captured Taliban fighters? And if you think they shouldn’t, why not? One warning, though: if you want to argue that it’s because war on terrorism is somehow more critical or more deadly than either the Cold War (potential global Armageddon, Europe/world saved from communism) or World War II (60 million dead, Europe/world saved from fascism), you’d better make a mighty good case.

And while you’re at it, you should also plainly state whether you think suspending the Conventions applies only to the U.S., or if it’s OK for everyone else as well. Might as well get all our cards out on the table at once.