Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Criminal Vs. An Enemy Combatant. Words Have Consequences.

I have been following the Boston Marathon bombings and its aftermath.  I'm glad that at least one of the alleged bombers was captured alive, for the sake of more information and clarity and, of course, for the sake of carrying out the tasks of a proper system of justice.  Those tasks are important for civilization to exist.

My political awakening coincided with two events:  The election of the second Georgie Porgie and the political events following 911.  The latter, in particular, was a rough awakening:  Plans to attack Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the 911 massacres, pushed everything else into a hasty foreplay before the intended war could be started.

But there was so much else wrong with those "everything else" events, including invading Afghanistan without an exit plan, not mentioning the country which in fact produced (and produces) the terrorists and the hasty creation of an enemy for the wars this country is still waging.

This enemy is a nebulous one, hiding under different names and inside different groups, not defined by much anything than one religion, and sometimes not even that.  We were told to create an image of the enemy in childish political terms (they want our toys, our freedoms/it is our sexual license that makes them do it) which omits US foreign policy from all consideration,  and we were told to look elsewhere when actual information could have clarified that frightening enemy lurking in the shades, could have made it less frightening, more objective and thus more possible to actually conquer.

I get the great advantages the Bush administration reaped from placing the country on a permanent war status.  For one thing, he probably got re-selected because of that, and he also got free hands to do almost anything he wished to do.

But from the very beginning of this  I was adamantly opposed to that framing.  The correct approach seemed to me then to treat the criminals as criminals.

This is still true, and the reasons are many.  First, the real terrorists regard themselves as soldiers in a holy war. By giving them that label voluntarily, they get greater recruiting potential, greater fame, greater martyrdom.  They were taken seriously, in the sense of an honorable opponent, someone we could declare a war against.  But in reality that group IS undefined, nebulous, and ultimately quite small.  What the US administration chose to do in 2001 elevated it, gave it mythical importance and a greater justification for existing.

Being declared a criminal has less glory attached to it than being declared an enemy combatant.  Thus, by choosing the latter (as would want to do) we are giving the terrorists exactly what they want.

Second,  the position of permanent and eternal war gives the US government powers to breach civil rights and human rights, a blank license to do things we would never accept done in ordinary crime prevention and crime-solving.  But because the danger is now existential, almost anything, from water boarding to sending suspects to torture in other countries, can at least be debated.  Once again, this gives the terrorists pretty much what they want if they happened to be motivated by the belief that Americans have too much freedom.

Third,  that treatment creates the foundation for illogical reptile-brain fears to fog out logical thinking.  If this danger is existential, it matters much more than the types of catastrophies (the Texas plant explosions) which cost us many more lives.  If this danger is existential, almost any amount of money can be spent on averting it, whereas the causes which cost many more lives are regarded as "spending we cannot afford."  This danger can be used to prop up utterly preposterous divisions of the federal budget pie and it can be used to fatten up parts of the bureaucracy which really do not need any more fattening.

Fourth, and this is a reason I only started thinking about recently, after reading articles about what might follow these events among American Muslims, Sikhs, or almost anyone who might look like whatever the imagination decides a frightening terrorist looks like:  Harassment, perhaps even violence aimed at those who might look like that nebulous enemy in the hind-brain of some frightened television-overloaded asshat.

Some of that bigotry and fear is unrelated to the use of war terms, but some is strengthened by that.  If the terrorists were regarded as mere criminals, they would be a clearly defined group.  Once they are defined as enemy combatants, even when they are American citizens, the idea of a fifth column is supported, grows horrible tentacles and infects the minds of individuals who might not otherwise have reacted that way:  If this is a real enemy, how can we tell who belongs to it?  They might be everywhere!  Help!

And because of that nebulous aspect of the enemy, anything the known cases might share with groups in the society becomes focal, becomes the criterion used to differentiate between "us" and "them."

As I mentioned, this is not the only reason for racial or religious profiling, and it has never worked for the white Christian terrorists (because whites and Christians are too large groups in the US, perhaps, but also because they are the home-group of many of those who practice the profiling).

Neither does it work for the one aspect of terrorists which in some ways is the most informative:  They are overwhelmingly male.  That, too, may be because the category is too wide but also because being male is the default category in our thinking and in that sense uninformative.  For instance, if most terrorists were female we would have hundreds of books on that because being female is not the default category.

Had we gone down the road of defining these horrors as crimes and their perpetrators as nasty criminals I think we might have had less bigotry and anger aimed at vast groups of innocent Americans and citizens of other countries.  International cooperation might have been strengthened, too.

These are my thoughts after reading this:

At the same time, some Republican senators, including John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, argued that using the criminal-justice system was a mistake and that Mr. Tsarnaev should instead be held indefinitely by the military as an “enemy combatant,” under the laws of war, and questioned without any Miranda warning or legal representation, in order to gain intelligence.Still, there is not yet any public evidence suggesting that Mr. Tsarnaev was part of Al Qaeda or its associated forces — the specific enemy with which the United States is engaged in an armed conflict. And some legal specialists also doubted that the Constitution would permit holding a suspect like Mr. Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant.
“This is an American citizen being tried for a crime that occurred domestically, and there is simply no way to treat him like an enemy combatant — not even close,” said Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and seasoned defense lawyer.
So.  At the time I write this we don't know what may have motivated the Tsarnaev brothers, in any case, but the flag of war has already been raised.   Even if the older brother had raised such a flag himself, taking that seriously would be a mistake.  It would give him (and any copycats) exactly the kind of martyrdom and glory they desire.  Being called a criminal is not glamorous.  It is also much closer to the truth.