Terrorists’ rights – if there is such a thing

It is remarkable – perhaps a testament to hope – that this argument still gets taken seriously, Play nice, they will, too!

Darren Bernard

It is nice to know that five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress might pass legislation this week dictating how the executive branch can interrogate and try suspected terrorists. Of course, that much-delayed accomplishment depends on the unlikely presumption that the House and Senate can quickly agree on a compromise measure in conference. Only then – most likely after the upcoming congressional recess – will President George W. Bush have a chance to sign something.

Whatever exactly that “something” turns out to be, it will almost certainly be Congress’ greatest input on how to fight the war on terrorism since it began. The pending legislation in both chambers spell out what rights terrorism detainees will have before military tribunals and, more controversially, what “liberties” CIA agents have while interrogating captured jihadis.

Last week, the Washington Post reported that increasing numbers of CIA counterterrorism operatives are getting insurance plans that would cover their financial exposure if they are taken to civil or criminal court. The worry, according to quondam operatives, is CIA officials could face subpoenas from a Democrat-controlled Congress after November, or criminal investigations from a Democratic president come 2009.

This is one reason this legislation has become such a priority among Republicans. Bush has asked Congress to clarify what spooks can and cannot do to get information from detainees – a question complicated by the administration’s decision (albeit forced) to extend Geneva protections to enemy prisoners.

For now, the answer from Congress looks to be “not much.” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., among a handful of Republicans and all Senate Democrats, has bucked the administration and demanded oddly generous rights for terrorism detainees – so generous, in fact, that National Intelligence Director John Negroponte and CIA Director Michael Hayden say the McCain proposal would suffocate effective intelligence gathering programs. These are the same programs, by the way, that probably broke Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and surely saved thousands of American lives.

The urge to be magnanimous on terrorists’ rights has some rationale. The sound bite argument from McCain et al. is the United States needs to reclaim its “moral leadership” by taking the high ground. More liberal rights could rally support from our allies for help in Iraq and Afghanistan. But mostly it is about doing the “right” thing. “This has nothing to do with al-Qaida,” McCain told ABC. “It has everything to do with America.”

In a sense, he’s right. One thing that separates us from the terrorists is respect for human rights, and the importance of preserving and highlighting that difference cannot be overstated.

But McCain and his new Democratic allies need to get real about the implications of white-gloving captured jihadis. For one, the United States does not need to reclaim its “moral leadership” in a fight against bloodthirsty animals. For two, France, Germany, Russia and China don’t have much interest in fighting these bloodthirsty animals in Iraq, and they won’t, regardless of what happens in this debate.

The most dangerous fallacy is that giving broader rights to terrorists is going to somehow protect the lives of U.S. soldiers on the battlefield. The logic is: If a soldier is captured by some whooping lunatic – after we backhand the CIA – the whooping lunatic will have no choice but to treat him nicely. This argument assumes some kind of reciprocity on human rights from our enemies, which, needless to say, there isn’t and never will be.

After all the barbaric decapitations, mutilations, suicide bombings, vicious murders of women and children, it is truly remarkable – perhaps a testament to hope – that this argument still gets taken seriously: “Maybe if we play nice, they will, too!”

Such wishful thinking is not merely misguided; it is delusional and irresponsible. In the Middle East, certain fanatics always are looking for excuses to justify their compulsive anti-Western paranoia. The hysterical reaction to the pope’s recent faux pas is a good example, as was the reaction to the Muhammad cartoons this spring.

Last Thursday, coincidentally the same day Capitol Hill was gripped by the detainee rights hubbub, The Associated Press ran a story on an announcement from two terrorist groups – namely, al-Qaida and the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Call and Combat – teaming up to attack targets in France. Evidently, the French have scored no brownie points with Osama in their endless criticism of American policy on Iraq, detainees’ rights, etc.

The take-away is this debate over detainee rights must be guided by both our moral vision and the practical implications of our decisions. We cannot be confused by the false hope that our good behavior will in any way improve the behavior of our enemies. They are monsters. It is nice to know that at least some in Washington are ready to treat them as such.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected].