How military tribunals would abet terrorism.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Dec. 6 2001 12:10 PM

Perceived Injustices

Here is President Bush's justification for sending suspected terrorists to "military tribunals" rather than granting them the legal protections we normally grant people, whether Americans or foreigners: "Non-U.S. citizens who plan and/or commit mass murder are more than criminal suspects," the president says. "They are unlawful combatants who seek to destroy our country and our way of life."

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Is the circularity of this logic so obvious that dwelling on it would be pedantic and obnoxious? Well, that's never stopped me before!

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Everyone agrees that people who have in fact planned or committed mass murder are "more than criminal suspects." They are criminals, and thus lose various privileges we normally accord people—such as the privilege of not living in a prison. But the question is: How do we determine whether they have in fact planned and/or committed mass murder? Bush's answer—since they're guilty, we can skip the standard procedure for determining whether they're guilty—could bring real administrative efficiencies, but it involves logical problems that even I won't bother elaborating. 

Alarmingly, this piece of logic didn't just slip out during Bush's off-the-cuff defense of military tribunals this week; he uttered it as part of last week's official, prepared statement in defense of them. The logic was presumably vetted by some of the finest legal minds in his administration. With minds like that, who needs gut instincts?

But the faulty judicial logic isn't what bothers me most about these "military tribunals"—courts that could operate in secret, among other eccentricities. It's the faulty geopolitical logic. 

Since Sept. 11, many observers have credited President Bush with belatedly appreciating that the United States is part of Planet Earth. This erstwhile unilateralist, we're told, is now a blossoming multilateralist, increasingly aware of America's interdependence with other nations. And it's true that events have moved Bush toward enlightenment. But this secret-tribunal idea is among the evidence that they haven't moved him very far. To truly appreciate the interdependence of the modern world would be to accept two premises that call the secret-tribunal scheme into grave doubt.  

First, and most obviously: If America wants to be treated in a certain way, it helps to treat other nations the same way. Do we want our citizens given a fair and open trial when they're accused of crimes abroad? Manifestly. We protested Peru's military "trial" of American Lori Berenson on terrorism charges. The Peruvian government obliged us by giving her a new trial in a civilian court, where she was convicted on a lesser charge and given a milder sentence. On what grounds would we protest the secret trial of an American citizen in the future if we're giving foreigners secret trials?

Second: In the modern world, what people think of the United States matters. As Sept. 11 and its aftermath suggested, technological evolution is moving us into an age when groups with intense grievances will have the capacity to wreak great violence. Being a much-hated nation will be increasingly unenviable. So, it matters that our treatment of foreigners be perceived as fair, and the first step toward this goal is to let our treatment of foreigners be perceived.

Of course, there are people on the streets of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who could never be convinced that America's jailing an Islamic terrorist is just. Some secret-tribunal enthusiasts would doubtless point to these people, arguing that convincing America-haters of America's goodness is a lost cause anyway—so, what have we got to lose? They'd be wrong on two counts.

First, converting America-haters to America-tolerators isn't the only goal. Preventing the conversion of America-tolerators into America-haters is equally important. And the more plausible the stories about American injustice, the more such conversions there will be.