al Qaeda: Warriors or Criminals?

I’m reading over a Federal Judge’s finding that the government can detain accused “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla indefinitely because the president “is authorized under the Constitution and by law to direct the military to detain enemy combatants.” And it brings me back to a question that has nagged at me ever since we declared war on terrorism after 9/11.

For starters, there’s the uncomfortable legal muddiness of cases like this one, as well as the issue surrounding our detention of all those al Qaeda POWs at Gitmo in Cuba. The Bushcroft crowd has argued that we’re at war, and that we should treat suspected terrorists according to the rules of war (except that we aren’t abiding by the Geneva Convention because the prisoners aren’t part of a sanctioned government war force – and if I butchered the explanation of this, forgive me, because it’s all very complicated and a bit confusing for me). On the other side we have a legion of Constitutional rights advocates lamenting that the government is throwing our civil liberties under the bus in the name of national security (and that’s actually pretty generous characterization, given what we know about John Ashcroft – a better argument might be that the government saw in 9/11 an excuse to do what it has wanted to do all along, but I digress).

These are valid concerns and represent a crucially important challenge that we as a society must negotiate – are civil rights and national security mutually exclusive goals? In thinking about it, ask yourself this. How much power do you want Ashcroft to have in shaping how the US deals with those who violate his version of the law? I mean, say you come to the attention of the government for something you may or may not have done, and they don’t have enough evidence to actually charge or convict you, but they know you did it. How comfortable are you with the whole detain-indefinitely-without-counsel thing now? If you aren’t nervous yet, you might want to consider that the administration is hoping to get rid of that pesky Miranda Rights nuisance that prevents law enforcement officers from employing “coercive interrogation” tactics.

But there’s another question that I think disturbs me almost as much, and it goes to the whole idea of declaring war on al Qaeda. To wit, what has al Qaeda ever done to deserve the credibility and status inherently conveyed by a declaration of war? Humanity has always been a warlike species, and America, like most other nations, has celebrated warriors throughout our history. Washington, Father of the Country? War hero. JFK, the hope of a generation? War hero. Jackson, Grant, Ike, Powell, Lee, Stormin’ Norman, and I could go on for days. We revere war heroes (and whether we do so too much for our own good I’ll leave for another day), and “warrior” is a term that connotes heroism, bravery, strength – all qualities we truly and universally respect in other people and seek to emulate ourselves. In fact, if you get right down to it, the values that underpin the word “hero” are pretty similar to those we ascribe to warriors.

So when you declare war, you are inherently conferring the warrior connotation on your enemy, even if he’s evil right down to his skivvies. Whether you laud that enemy, respect him for his skills, deride him as the devil incarnate, whatever, you have accorded him a measure of credibility and status.

Does bin Laden deserve this status? Mohammed Atta? The semi-anonymous, box-cutter-wielding thugs on those flights whose noble task it was to keep unarmed civilians out of the cockpit? The suicide bombers preying almost daily on innocent civilians in Israel? Do we want to grant these vermin the same status we have in the past accorded to the likes of Cornwallis, Santa Anna, and Geronimo?

Seriously, who is Osama bin Laden more like? Erwin Rommel or Josef Mengele? Yamamoto or Jim Jones? Tecumseh or Vlad the Impaler? Shaka Zulu or Harris & Klebold? Baron von Richtoven or Jack the Ripper? Alexander the Great or Al Capone?

Julius Ceasar or Timothy McVeigh?

I understand that I’m simplifying a bit to make a point. Some war heroes can be classified as mass murderers if you strip away the sanction of official war and just look at body count, and some more despicable types technically belong on both lists (Hitler and Stalin, anyone?) But there’s a real issue here, and it directs our policy toward terror in ways that ought to trouble us. What implications would it have for our approach to the whole terror problem if we classified al Qaeda as a criminal organization, something along the lines of the Gambino crime family or the Medellin drug cartel (oops, wait, we declared war on drugs, too, didn’t we?)

Ultimately al Qaeda’s greatest victory might not prove to be that they took down the towers, but that they set in motion a series of events that caused us to take down our own Constitution, and for those of us concerned about such things the “criminal” route probably seems a lot cleaner and in line with the principles that our government was built on.

But in the end, it just gripes the hell out of me that Bush, his half-witted GOP cronies, and the appeasement-minded Democratic “opposition” have had the gall to elevate mass murderers to the status of warrior. If it has to wait until your back is turned, or if it only has courage enough to strike at the weak, the unarmed, and the innocent, it’s not a warrior. It’s a gutless coward and a criminal.

And it’s high time we started treating them that way.

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