Those Poor, Poor Terrorists

God bless Americans. You won’t catch anyone else — certainly not the murder machines that pass for human in the blockhouses of south Lebanon and the desert vastness of Anbar Province — celebrating the rights of those trying to kill them. But here we are, warming up for an early debate on what we owe, constitutionally speaking, to "suspected bomb-makers, terrorist trainers, recruiters and facilitators, and potential suicide bombers" — as President Bush described the inhabitants of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

Bush asked last weekend that Congress vote to establish military commissions so we might start bringing some of our country’s sworn and once-active enemies to trial. Nothing is easy or clear-cut in post-9/11 America. That includes the question of what rights we accord those enemies and what rights we sensibly withhold.

Offered a proposal bearing George W. Bush’s name, various Americans want to honk their noses into it. As it happens, prominent military lawyers, schooled in traditional jurisprudence, are encouraging a more spacious view of prisoner rights than the White House is proposing. They in turn gain encouragement from Republican senators like John McCain — whose Hanoi Hilton experiences give him permanent stature to address such questions — and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a onetime military prosecutor who called the Bush proposal "a bridge too far."

Well, I don’t know. Is it? It might be if we were facing a normal enemy, say, Hitler’s Wehrmacht. A normal enemy we don’t see in Anbar Province and Lebanon. As Bush noted last week, these enemies "represent no nation, they defend no territory, and they wear no uniform. … They operate in the shadows of society. … They conspire in secret, and then they strike without warning." As on 9/11.

The beef in Senate speeches and on left-wing blogs — a strange combination, if you ask me — is that Bush’s proposed policy would afford the gentle inhabitants of Guantanamo "a second-class system of justice," one "designed to hide use of torture and other interrogation abuses." The Bush policy would prohibit defense lawyers from sharing classified information with their clients. "I fell over when I read it," says Graham. Fell over? Better surely than rolling over and playing the Perfect Humanitarian.

One can’t suppose a broad public desire to throw a noose around the neck of each captured terrorist, not least because a prime reason for taking them alive is the extraction of lifesaving information. Still, isn’t there a moral disconnect here? During a war — didn’t you know there was one going on? — one doesn’t conventionally get carried away by concern for the enemy. Yes, there is the need always for civilized restraint, sometimes for going further than necessary on behalf of decency, so as "not to become like the enemy." But it is odd this week to talk of such things.

The New York Times performed a public service on 9/11 by running two pages of telling thumbnail interviews with those who lost loved ones on the fatal day.

"It’s a total weight over me," says the mother of artist Robert A. Campbell. "It’s an effort to get up in the morning."

"These last five years have been horrendous," says the widow of fireman Joseph E. Maloney.

"People say, ‘Oh, it’s five years, get over it,’" says the mother of Maria Ramirez. "But how can I get over it when there’s so many reminders out there? I wish I could take a pill and go to sleep and wake up Oct. 1." "Some days I feel like a dead man," says the father of Robert G. McIlvaine.

"I’m still grieving, and my life will never be the same," says the former companion of Karen Hawley Juday.

There’s your answer, or part of it, to complaints that we don’t bend over far enough for the Guantanamo 700, and that we’re just not fair enough, not decent enough, not civilized enough.

Not civilized enough? Tell that to all whose lives have been extinguished or wrenched out of place by unearned — I said unearned — cruelty, cunning and malice — and see how the Bush proposals look then.