A question of character and ‘unlawful combatants'

February 16, 2002

Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts

It is, at bottom, an argument about pictures and words.

The pictures are of captured al-Qaida terrorists, hooded, shackled and kneeling. The words are "unlawful combatants," the U.S. government's preferred term for the men it has interned on a military base in Cuba.

Together, words and pictures have inflamed an international debate. Human rights groups have accused the United States of treating the detainees inhumanely. Even America's staunchest ally, Great Britain, has registered rumblings of concern.

Some observers want to change the picture by changing the words. They've been pressuring the Bush administration to designate the men prisoners of war, which would trigger the protections of the Geneva Convention. Among those protections: The men would be required to give interrogators only their names, ranks and serial numbers and would be guaranteed release when the fighting ends.


In response, the Bush administration has refused to change the words and sought instead to spin the picture. It points out that the detainees are allowed to shower, exercise and practice their religion. They've received medical care and are fed "culturally appropriate" meals. We are reminded that these remain dangerous men bent on indiscriminate murder.

Meanwhile, a related drama unfolds. Kidnappers in Pakistan have released several photographs of their hostage, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The most striking shows a gun to his head. His captors, who seek the release of the detainees in Cuba, assure us Pearl has been subjected to "inhuman conditions." At this writing, they are vowing to execute him within hours if their demands are not met. I write these words fearing that he may be dead by the time you read them.

More words, another picture. If there's been an international outcry over this human rights violation, I haven't seen it. It's a double standard that says much about the moral burden that falls upon the United States as it learns to fight a new kind of war.

There is, after all, an obvious reason no one calls upon Daniel Pearl's kidnappers to treat him according to the rules: No one expects they would listen. They are not bound by rules, values, or what Jefferson called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

It's different with us.

We are the most powerful and, we like to believe, the best nation on Earth. But with that comes the responsibility to balance pragmatism with morality. To be an example. To stand for something.

As it happens, the White House is on reasonably firm ground in its refusal to designate the al-Qaida terrorists prisoners of war. The Geneva Convention defines a POW as, among other things, a member of an opposing force that carries arms "openly," fights under a fixed sign you can see from a distance and conducts operations "in accordance with the laws and customs of war." Terrorists, by definition, don't do any of the above.

Moreover, there's every reason to believe one or more of the al-Qaida detainees might have information about the NEXT Sept. 11th. We're morally bound to extract that information by every reasonable means. Do we really want to release a man who, it later turns out, might have warned us about a smallpox attack that wipes out half of Atlanta?

This is not World War II or even Vietnam. It's an alley fight and those are not governed by Marquess of Queensberry rules. In the absence of credible evidence that the United States has abused these men, the recent criticism seems premature and misguided at best.

By the same token, though, we need to understand that this new kind of war where we fight shadowy groups instead of sovereign nations forces us to walk a narrow moral line. The Bush administration swears it hasn't crossed that line. It had better be telling the truth. Anything less only injures American interests in the long run.

Because crises don't test character so much as reveal it.

And make no mistake, that's what this war is about. Every bit as much as self-defense and retribution, it's about character. It asks a simple question:

In the wake of all we've seen, felt and feared since Sept. 11, can we still afford to be whom and what we always said we were?

The answer is another question:

Can we afford not to?

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

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