On May 13, 1943, Axis forces in North Africa surrendered. The Allies suddenly found themselves saddled with nearly three hundred thousand prisoners of war, including the bulk of General Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps. Unable to feed or house their share, the British asked their American comrades to relieve them of the burden. And so, by the tens of thousands, German soldiers were loaded aboard Liberty Ships, which had carried American troops across the Atlantic. Eventually, some five hundred P.O.W. camps, scattered across forty-five of the forty-eight United States, housed some four hundred thousand men. In every one of those camps, the Geneva conventions were adhered to so scrupulously that, after the war, not a few of the inmates decided to stick around and become Americans themselves. That was extraordinary rendition, Greatest Generation style.
Okay, you know where this is going, don’t you?
If you said, Gitmo, you’re absolutely right.
Former Jimmy Carter speechwriter and current New Yorker scribe Hendrik Hertzberg, author of the above snippet, admits that the detainees in the “war on terror” are very different from World War II prisoners. He points out that they are more intensely ideological than World War II soldiers (!) and that they are smaller in number. Hertzberg believes that it is their relative paucity that was permitted to “engender a miasma of popular fear and political cowardice that contrasts shamefully with the matter-of-fact courage of an earlier and simpler time.”
Question: Which would you fear more-a German boy captured in World War II or a terrorist? But Hertzberg is right about the simpler time: those were the halcyon days when our enemies didn’t behead Americans in front of the camera.
Hertzberg not only believes that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the terror mastermind of 9/11 should have been tried in New York, he seems to regard it as a big misunderstanding that this will not take place. What went wrong? The administration “neglected to prepare” New York’s City Hall for the outcry that resulted from the original plan. Because of the public reaction, a “dispiriting series of tactical retreats from civil-liberties principles has followed.”
Thought experiment: Imagine what you’d say to convince New Yorkers that the masterminded of 9/11 deserved the same legal rights as a U.S. citizen. Bonus points for explaining why a courthouse near the Twin Towers is appropriate.
Hertzberg is so wrong. The legal standing of terrorists is not the same as the legal standing of soldiers of enemy nations. Such soldiers are entitled to different rights. The military tribunal is the appropriate place to try an unlawful combatant. Our normal legal system was not devised to deal with terrorists. To try a terrorist in an American courtroom is like trying a criminal case in a civil court-it’s the wrong venue.
Nor were our normal ways of detaining POWs devised to handle terrorists. Young German captured in war may be enemies but they are not international outlaws. And would you really want these high value prisoners in prisons scattered across the country? Though we should be humane, even to monsters, and apply the Geneva Conventions if we can, we must remember that these terrorists are not party to the conventions. They did not sign the agreement.
Confusing a soldier who fought for his country, ever how wrong that country might have been in World War II, with a terrorist is unpardonable.