Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A victory for the American Way

Superman might not be willing to say it for fear of alienating overseas audiences (the market at work, by the way), but I will.

Bowing to the inevitable, the Bush administration today said all detainees at military facilities, including Guantanamo and other overseas locations, are entitled to the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

The Bush administration, called to account by Congress after the Supreme Court blocked military tribunals, said Tuesday all detainees at Guantanamo Bay and in U.S. military custody everywhere are entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the policy, outlined in a new Defense Department memo, reflects the recent 5-3 Supreme Court decision blocking military tribunals set up by
President Bush. That decision struck down the tribunals because they did not obey international law and had not been authorized by Congress.

This is a victory for the true American Way: the one that values civil liberties and individual freedom, and doesn't abandon our principles the instant we feel that our security is threatened. It's a brave America, one that has the courage to live in a free and open society, even when we think we might be physically safer in a more closed and paranoid society.

This doesn't make everything okay overnight. For one thing, this refers to military facilities, leaving open the possibility -- nay, likelihood -- that it will not be applied to CIA facilities.

And it will take time to heal the damage done to our cause, damage that could have been avoided if we had simply declared this policy from the beginning.

But at least we're here.

How this plays out in practice could become complex. If detainees are covered by Geneva, that implies they are prisoners of war, without recourse to civilian courts. That's fine, as long as the prisoners have the right to challenge their combatant status. And as I've argued before, we really need to start defining which "war" they are being held in, because the generic "war on terror" will go on for a long time and span multiple conflicts. We should recognize the injustice of holding a Taliban foot soldier long after any recognizable conflict in Afghanistan has ended, simply because we're still fighting our "war on terror" in Iraq or Iran or Yemen or wherever.

If they are terrorists, they are criminals and should be charged as such. If they are soldiers, they are POWs, and deserve a clear and precise definition of just which war they can be held until the end of.

Snow gets the unenviable job of trying to cover his bosses' backsides:

"It's not really a reversal of policy," Snow asserted, calling the Supreme Court decision "complex."

Yuh-huh. I understand what he means -- he's saying that we've generally been following the Conventions even while claiming we didn't have to. But "generally following" is far different from being required to faithfully obey the whole thing. It's a reversal of policy, even if the practical effect on the ground is less than a 180-degree turn.

The argument is not over. The Senate began hearings today on the Gitmo military tribunals, and the administration still wants legislation making them legal. But there are also upcoming inquiries into our strategy in Iraq and the various secret surveillance programs that have come to light in recent months. All in all it looks like we're finally going to get a much-needed conversation on just how we wish to fight terror. If you have any interest in the outcome at all, let your elected representatives know. Because what is decided in the upcoming months, against the backdrop of a looming election, will likely determine our country's security/freedom tradeoff for years to come.

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