I was previously unaware of the provisions in Geneva Article 3 that say in effect, if a prisoner’s status as a POW is questioned, he should enjoy the protections granted POWs until status can be determined by a tribunal. (Thank you to bradhicks for linking to that. I think it’s tremendously important.) Bush, Rumsfeld and Gonzales made the decision that these individuals were not POWs. Without meeting them. That effectively means that they *were* the tribunal. To me, this is yet one more example of the USA reacting out of proportion to the actual threat, and using the occasion of a terrorist attack to manipulate the system and erode liberties in the name of temporary/perceived safety. (Didn’t Ben warn us about that?)
I believe that USA’s thoughts/feelings/beliefs regarding terrorism are on the average, indicative of our inexperience and immaturity with regard to the threat. Compared to Europe, in my opinion, USA reacts a lot more strongly with a lot less provocation, because we haven’t had to deal with it on a daily basis before now. But in Europe they have been dealing with terrorism for years, and not just in the Middle East; even London has dealt with IRA for the better part of a lifetime. They consider it a badge of honor to recover from a terrorist attack by continuing on with their lives (and their tea) as normal.
Even the threat of USSR bombing our cities with nukes didn’t get us as hot and bothered as the threat of a suicide bomber, or of terrorists knocking down a building or two. Our collective societal reaction to the threat of nuclear annihilation has pretty much been “So what, if it happens, we won’t be around to worry about it”, whereas our reaction to sneaking a liquid explosive cocktail on a plane has been “Oh my god, how could such a thing happen, and why isn’t *someone* doing *something* about it!!!!1”
That suggests either we are all basically hypocrites, or someone/something is manipulating our emotions for their gain. But, it also suggests that after living with terrorism as an accepted risk (just like, as you said before, driving a car is a huge, but accepted risk), after 20 years or so our response to terrorism will be a more mature, intellectual, considered one rather than the immature (bordering on childish), emotional, hair-trigger-reflex reaction we mostly have now.
And, it’s not just terrorism itself, it’s the threat of an enemy unlike ourselves. By that I mean, take our collective reaction to Tim McVeigh, who blew up (most of) a building. We dismiss him as almost an aberration. He looks like us, so in order to do what he did, he must have been insane. We fear nutjobs like him but they are also an accepted risk. Somehow terrorism is a lot more scary if it’s sporting an Arab face, and we get more easily worked up about the idea that an entire class of foreigners wants us Westerners dead. We suffer a lot more from violent crime by USA citizens than by foreign agents, which I’ll bet is still less than we suffer from auto accidents, yet the reaction is all out of proportion to the actual threat.
What bothers me about the mistreatment of prisoners–about the very idea of a “nuanced” position as to whether certain prisoners enjoy certain protections and what *exactly* inhuman or degrading treatment actually is–is that we’re attaching any conditions at all to the concept of “human rights”. I believe that we grant human rights to others *not* because of who *they* are, but because of who *we* are. Our treatment of others defines *us*. (Have you ever heard the phrase, people who aren’t nice to others when it doesn’t matter, aren’t nice people?)
Our mistreatment of prisoners is just one example of our collective overreaction to the specter of terrorism. We have given up a number of liberties in the name of living in a “safer” society. Wiretaps. Library books. Our treatment of suspicious-looking immigrants. Ultimately we are going to have to decide if additional safety is worth the change in our *character*, and our *values*.
I once heard an army training officer describe how he tries to prepare soldiers to go into a war zone. He said something to the effect of: search yourself and decide ahead of time what you will or won’t do in an extreme situation, because when the situation happens, you won’t have time to think about the ramifications of your actions. You won’t have time in the heat of battle to decide if something goes against what you believe in. If you haven’t decided ahead of time, you will have to decide under the influence of strong emotions, and you may find your self under enormous pressure to do something you’ll regret later.
I also believe quite strongly that if we want to live in a world where people act a certain way, then we each have a responsibility to act that way, or else the standard won’t be a real one. *That’s* what I mean when I say that our treatment of others defines us. If we look at a particular rule of law that we think *defines* us and makes us *better* human beings, and then decide that it doesn’t apply in certain cases, does it really define us? Does it really make us better human beings?
If we *do* decide that we want to collectively give up liberties in the name of safety, would we still teach our kids that the Bill of Rights is an important part of who we are? Would we still, for old-times’ sake, refer to ourselves as fiercely independent, rugged individualists, etc.?
Having said all that, now I am left to decide which of these is worse: an attack by scary foreigners on our buildings and our people, or the idea that we should give up liberties, and be selective about granting basic rights, even if doing so saves lives? Which of these is an attack on our very way of life?