Over at the Belmont Club, Wretchard has a fascinating examination on the atrocities being committed by Al Qaeda In Iraq. He even gives an account of one particularly heinous deed, as reported by Michael Yon, that he has his doubts about — as do I, and I believe Yon as well — but we all agree that it is certainly not beyond them should they choose to do it. (A fair use of “fake, but accurate,” I’m tempted to say.)
He makes much the same point I have made before, but I want to repeat and make more explicit: the Geneva Conventions are NOT purely a restriction, but a privilege. They are a contract, with duties and benefits to both sides — as long as both sides abide by them.
There are numerous rights granted by the Conventions to those captured during war — but only to those who have accepted and abided by the Conventions in the first place. Our forces are governed by the Conventions, act accordingly for the most part, and are punished when they do not.
But those we fight do not abide by the Conventions. Indeed, oft times it seems that they study the Conventions purely as a “checklist” on things they wish to violate. The use of civilians as shields, the deliberate targeting of civilians, the use of hospitals and mosques for military operations, the disguising themselves as civilians or police or military — these violations have all been well documented.
In a supremely rational world, those who so deliberately flout the Conventions in this way would be denied any and all protections of the Geneva Conventions when captured. They would be subject to indefinite detention, no access to counsel or the Red Cross, no guarantees of humane treatment, and even summary execution — depending on the judgment and best interests of our forces.
Instead, we have those among us demanding that they be given exactly the same treatment our personnel are entitled to should they be captured.
Of course, our troops face no such assurances. Indeed, some times I wonder if the best thing that can happen to any of them who get caught by the enemy is if they are killed quickly. The record of torture, execution, or just plain “disappearing” is atrocious.
The Geneva Conventions, like most contracts, are not built around “we do this because we’re nice people.” It’s based on one of the most fundamental principles — self-interest.
For all its grandiose language and high ideals and the exemplary morality people have imbued it with, it boils down to a simple “carrot and stick” principle: we’ll treat your people decently if you treat ours. We won’t target your civilians if you don’t target ours. We won’t blow up your churches, schools, hospitals and whatnot if you leave ours alone.
There is no such underlying agreement, no shared principles, no common humanity in the current War On Terror. And, therefore, there is no legal obligation for us to apply the Geneva Conventions in this case.
But there are other reasons to consider. Should we continue to apply the Conventions simply out of our own sense of humanity? Should we extend those protections not because our enemies deserve them, but because we do not wish to be the sort of people that do those sorts of things? In short, should we not become just like those we are fighting?
As seductive as that reasoning is, appealing to our sense of pride and honor and morality, it’s too simplistic. If we deny a single privilege to a detainee, we are not the equivalent of those who slaughter entire villages, every man, woman, child, and animal. If we summarily execute a terrorist instead of arresting them and granting them the equivalent of Miranda privileges, we are not interchangeable with those who behead kidnapped captives on video while crying out the greatness of Allah.
The guiding principle behind our treatment of those who we capture must be our own best interests — both short-term and long-term.
For example, the summary execution of prisoners. What benefit is served by that?
Well, for one, their value as a bartering chip drops tremendously. The odds of innocents being kidnapped and offered in exchange go down tremendously when the person whose release is being sought has assumed room temperature. Hell, most of the time they don’t even have to demand their return — we’ll tell the terrorists right where they can find their late comrade.
For another, by applying it selectively, we might apply a moderating element on the enemy. By saving the summary execution penalty for only those involved in the most heinous of atrocities, we might deter the enemy from committing them in the first place. Especially if the execution is coupled with some judicious desecration of the corpses — anointing them with pig lard, for example.
The Geneva Conventions were never intended to be handcuffs. In Iraq and elsewhere, that is how they are being used. Our forces are being pressured to grant their full protections to the enemy, yet know that they have no such hopes for themselves. It’s not fair to them, and it’s downright deadly to the real civilians, who find themselves the most frequent victims of the terrorists.
But that doesn’t seem to matter to those who see the Geneva Conventions as absolutely binding. As long as they can feel that their hands are “clean,” they don’t look too closely at who is really paying the price for their high principals.