Where’s the Outrage? Oh, There It Is

We have been following the stories in the international press about alleged desecrations of the Qur’an by soldiers in charge of detainees at Guantanamo Base.  What a mess.

We have heard snippets of news about large demonstrations in Jakarta against these alleged incidents.  It seems that thousands of students, activists, and other folks have voiced their disapproval of both the alleged Qur’an desecrations as well as the general treatment of detainees.  Fortunately, there does not seem to have been any violence as has happened in other parts of the Islamic world.  Here’s to hoping that SBY, who is currently visiting with President Bush in Washington, has a good head on his shoulders and can figure out the right things to say to calm tensions in Jakarta.  The tensions are bad enough that the US Embassy in Jakarta and the consulate in Surabaya have ceased all services except for emergency visa services for Americans living in the country.  There is, as of yet, no word on there being any trouble in Malaysia, although we dare say people aren’t thrilled with the allegations.

As for the allegations themselves, we’re pretty sure that we can’t add anything of substance that someone else already has not already said in the years since Guantanamo Base began housing enemy combatants. We find the current situation ethically repugnant.  This is exactly what any high school civics student could have imagined might happen when we separated government operations from public oversight.  There is not even a hint of institutionalized public accountability for actions at the base.  These allegations may or may not be true (and our assumption is always innocent until proven guilty), but the stupidest thing about the Bush administration’s policies here is that we’ll never know.  In house investigations can never be truly free of the suspicion of political pressure, and we don’t think that any government in the world deserves the benefit of the doubt.  These enemy combatants require the same assurances of proper treatment that prisoners of war require, and that requires independent monitoring and transparency.   Of course, the administration has naively walked right into this issue, and will not be able to extricate itself to any party’s satisfaction without complying to a just system of oversight.  This is obviously unlikely.  So complaints will continue, and credibility will suffer.

The administration’s lame attempt to rebut the allegations seems not to have helped.  Having a policy that the Qur’an is to be treated with utmost respect is essential, yet it is trivially the case that the existence of a policy does not ensure compliance with its guidelines.  People around the world are smart enough to figure that out, and the administration comes across as either arrogant or deceitful when dissembling like this.

The American criminal justice system is the envy of the world, and that the US has about the best record of treatment of prisoners of war that you can imagine.  That’s what makes us better than our enemies, whomever they may be.

Comments 11

  1. Jeff May 26, 2005

    This is a non sequitur to your post, but…
    …isn’t today your birthday, Tom? Happy Happy Joy Joy!

  2. Josh May 27, 2005

    “Whomever they may be”? What a shocking grammatical error.

  3. Tom May 27, 2005

    Hey, thanks for the birthday wishes. Oh, and grammar. Let’s get it on. (By the way, I spent about 3 minutes debating which one to use, whomever or whoever, when initially writing this.)
    Your correction lies on the stupid predicate nominative rule. We can rework “whomever they may be” into “they may be whomever,” which is wrong, when you consider that correct 8th grade English tells us to say “they may be they” instead of “they may be them.” I hate that rule. Touche.
    Then again, I assume from your reply that the most offensive part of my post is its grammar, not its content. So I feel good about that.

  4. James May 27, 2005

    New flash. Thousands of unemployed Israelis protest the desecration of the Talmud by Syria. Al-Jazeera reports that one copy was flushed down the toilet. President Assad denies the alegation adding that policy is in place to protect the civil rights of “Talmuds, American flags, and other Zionist propaganda.” Assad also urged Al-Jazeera to reinvestigate or withdraw its report. Unfortunately for the Muslim world, it may be too late to repair this latest blow to their image in Israel. Tens of thousands of Jews have already sworn to blow themselves up at Palestinian checkpoints because, as one ultraorthodox Rabbi explained “we don’t have anything better to do.”

  5. Tom May 27, 2005

    Hmm, James. There are so many potential levels of sarcasm here that I’m unable to break through them to see what you are trying to say.

  6. Matt May 28, 2005

    Tom: I agree with what you say about the ethical issues raised by Guantanomo in general, and about oversight in particular. However, it is a philosophical (as opposed to legal) point that enemy combatants deserve the same treatment as prisoners of war. The Geneva convention as absolutely clear on this.
    The reason the Geneva convention wants this to be so is because it sets up a system in which you only get the minimum treatment standards if you are part of a chain of command – you need a rank, a uniform, and a position in a hierarchical army. That way, leaders can ultimately be held accountable. Enemy combatants, at least the ones held at Guantanomo, do not operate on this basis. So while they may philosophically deserve the same treatment as POWs, the nations of the world have not asserted their collective will to write down that they do.
    Good post, though. Hope i didn’t spell anything wrong. Happy birthday.

  7. Tom May 28, 2005

    Matt, I totally agree with the fact that it is a philosophical rather than a legal point that POWs deserve proper treatment. There’s no treaty that spells out what we should do to them. My complaints will not find solutions in legal arguments. Such is the state of international law.
    (I should point out that the Bush administration’s suggestion that there is something “new” about “war on terror” prisoners–that these guys don’t wear uniforms and don’t have generals so we don’t know what to do with them, and this is something we’ve never deal with before so we have to make up the rules–is wrong. Anyone who has taken World History 101 can count off dozens of similar examples in modern history. Viet Cong (as opposed to NVA) is one example.)
    However, my point is strategic as much as it is philosophical. As a country with strategic global interests, it is manifestly true that we SHOULD care about what other countries think about our behavior towards prisoners of war in Guantanamo. If we care about how our actions look abroad, we should make smart decisions regarding our prisoners. Hence my point that nothing that the US can do short of total capitulation to NGO demands will solve our problem.
    Think of it in terms of a commitment problem. We cannot credibly commit to behave correctly this situation. It doesn’t matter if we intend to do so; if our observers are rational, they will act as if we have something to hide. It’s worse because we DO have institutions that allow us to credibly commit to proper behavior, we just chose not to use them.
    It was a stupid policy of the Bush administration to adopt this stance. People all over the world saw this sort of problem coming. The administration looked to holes in international law to justify its actions, and blithely hoped that a situation such as this would not come to pass. Well, it did. So now what?

  8. Matt May 29, 2005

    I concur that it was a stupid move by the administration to take this stance, but i’m skeptical of the causal relationship you develop. I’m not sure that we would be getting any better treatment/feelings/etc from the world/islam if those currently held at Guantonomo were being held in a standard POW situation, since POWs have very few rights beyond basic human dignity until the war ends. I’m relatively confident that even if we were holding the POWs in Switzerland under the auspices of the U.N and not bothering to interrogate them, we would still be getting haranged about their treatment. Such is the consequnce of empire. I’m virtually positive that the current screaming would be replaced with screaming that the “war is over” and thus the POWs must be “returned,” whatever that means.
    Now, the above reasoning is why i think that the administration would never grant “POW status” to those at Guantanomo – it means that when the war ends, they are free. I do think, however, that those currently at Guantanomo should have treatment AS IF THEY WERE POWs, along the human rights dimension.
    In either case, however, i don’t think it would do much to change the animosity of the world, probably just would redirect it. On the other hand, it might do something, and it’s not clear to me that the gains the administration thought would come through the current statusing system – most intelligence – have been worth a small pound of salt.

  9. Tom May 29, 2005

    Yeah, I’m sure you’re right that things would not be hunky-dory in the international public opinion department if the US had decided to send POWs to Switzerland. People who want to complain will always find something to complain about.
    I think that you and I are pretty much in agreement. This situation is definitely hurting the US, and while another situation might not been a lot better, it probably wouldn’t have been worse. In this case, I side with ethics. Don’t give any government the temptation to treat enemy combatants improperly. To me, that’s just so obvious. It doesn’t matter that I think that the US is a great country and that the Bush administration at the highest levels genuinely does not want to mistreat them. As principles, they cannot credibly commit to delegate and monitor their agents, and so we should be suspicious.

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