Are members of Al Qaeda entitled to Geneva Convention protections for POWs? Are Taliban fighters and Iraqi insurgents entitled to those protections, by which soldiers are to give name, rank and serial number, but never to be abused to force them to reveal military secrets?
As Alberto Gonzales has discovered, these are not just legal issues. The Geneva Conventions are international law. They are rules for the conduct of war, agreed to by civilized nations, that assumed wars would be fought between armies whose soldiers would respect these rules.
Under the Geneva Conventions, however, soldiers who fight out of uniform or commit atrocities — i.e., murder prisoners or target and kill noncombatants — may be sent before firing squads.
Wehrmacht soldiers who penetrated American lines in the Battle of the Bulge by wearing U.S. Army uniforms hastily shed them to fight in German uniforms — or else they could have been shot when captured. OSS agents, dropped behind enemy lines to kill German pilots and Nazi collaborators, knew they were not entitled to the same protections as 82nd Airborne troops dropped behind German lines on D-Day.
Here we come to America’s dilemma. While the Afghan and Iraqi soldiers who fought the U.S. invasions are surely entitled to Geneva Convention protections for POWs, what of Al Qaeda? What of the jihadis and foreign fighters who kidnap and behead aid workers?
What of Iraqis who plant roadside explosives or enlist in security forces to plant bombs in U.S. Army mess halls? Are they also entitled to the Geneva Convention protections of wartime soldiers?
In America, serial murderers Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy were accorded constitutional protections, not only against abuse, but against self-incrimination. Both received trial by jury. Both were guaranteed a taxpayer-subsidized legal defense.
Should we — because it is the American way of justice — extend such constitutional protections to Al Qaeda terrorists caught on U.S. soil?
Should we extend Geneva Convention protections to all captured insurgents? Can we win a war on terror if we fight by Geneva rules, while our enemy fights by the Maoist rules of people’s war, which condone terror and murder, and encourage guerrillas to fight out of uniform and kill the enemy anywhere, any time, any way?
In World War II, FDR did not hesitate to execute, after secret trials, six German saboteurs caught on U.S. soil, though they had not killed a single American or exploded a single bomb. They were saboteurs, out of uniform behind American lines, and under the rules of warfare, we had every right to execute them. And we did.
Have we the same right to execute terrorists who come here to massacre civilians as we did those Nazi saboteurs?
Apparently, while the Geneva Conventions permit us to execute captured Al Qaeda, we may not inflict pain on them to force them to reveal secrets that might prevent another 9-11?
Because we find torture abhorrent and degrading, and do not want it used on our soldiers, we adhere to proscriptions against it in international law. But if we are to win this war on terror, we must at least tell Al Qaeda this: If you are caught on U.S. soil, bent on slaughtering innocent Americans, you have no more rights than those German saboteurs, and we will execute you, speedily, after military trials.
With Iraqi insurgents, we face the problem the British Army faced in Ireland from 1919 to 1921 and the French faced in Algeria from 1954 to 1962. In Ireland’s war of independence, IRA “flying squads” of gunmen attacked British troops, then melted away into a supportive population. British veterans of the Western Front, not knowing how to find and fight such an enemy, engaged in reprisals against Irish civilians. Thus, Britain lost the Irish people, and Ireland, forever.
In Algeria, terror attacks on French soldiers and civilians brought in Gen. Massu’s “paras,” who tortured terror suspects for information to eradicate the FLN. Thus was the Battle of Algiers won — and Algeria lost.
Whatever we may think of their tactics, the IRA of yesteryear, the FLN, the Afghan mujahideen of the 1980s and Hezbollah in the 1990s succeeded in expelling those they saw as occupiers. The Iraqi insurgents are using these same tactics, plus the now-familiar car bomb and suicide bomber made famous by Hamas.
It may be that Americans, revolted as we are by the methods and means necessary to crush such an insurgency, are incapable of winning a long war against an enemy who rejects Geneva rules. Is it possible that our Western standards for fighting a just and moral war, dating to St. Augustine, have so tied our hands in this war in Iraq that we cannot finally defeat the enemy?
If so, let us find out soon.