The international media, many governments and some human rights organizations immediately condemned the United States upon seeing photos of the al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. Rather than depicting them sipping cocktails at a Buena Vista Social Club show, the pictures showed the prisoners shorn of their religious beards, shackled and blindfolded in chain-link fenced cages conditions that apparently violate the Geneva Convention's rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war.
But the U.S. claims that the prisoners are not "prisoners of war" but rather "unlawful combatants." Because one of al-Qaeda's stated missions is to kill American civilians, we argue that captured al-Qaeda fighters do not qualify as POWs under the convention. The government's official term for them is "detainees." (In case you're curious, my official term for them is "assholes.")
The debate isn't merely over legal terminology. One of the main reasons we have the prisoners -- oops, I mean detainees -- at Guantanamo is to interrogate them. We want to find out about other terrorist plots and identify hidden al-Qaeda agents around the world. If we declare them POWs under the Geneva Convention's rules, we can't interrogate them.
Critics contrast our treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners with the treatment of American Taliban John Walker Lindh. Lindh is in jail in Virginia awaiting trial in a civilian federal court. The Guantanamo prisoners may be tried and even executed in secret by a military court.
But critics who cite Lindh's treatment are ignoring two important distinctions. First, Walker is a U.S. citizen and is thus entitled to Constitutional protection. Second, Walker has been on the cover of a lot of important magazines and newspapers -- and if there's one law that Americans always follow, it's the one that guarantees good treatment of celebrities.
But even in government circles, there's debate over whether the prisoners should be granted Geneva Convention POW status. Some in the State Department (Colin Powell is rumored to be among them) want to grant the al-Qaeda fighters POW protection so that captured American special forces might be granted the same. So far, that argument hasn't swayed our policy.
Meanwhile, captured al-Qaeda fighters held in Afghanistan's overcrowded, disease-ridden Shibergan prison keep asking to be shipped to the vastly more comfortable Guantanamo jail. I'm starting to think that maybe some of these guys didn't really think this jihad stuff all the way through.
So what exactly is the Geneva Convention? Well, in 1949 the world's diplomats gathered at a Holiday Inn in Geneva, Switzerland, eventually agreeing to a set of rules that spell out the requirements for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. They probably celebrated the agreement by drinking a lot of schnapps and -- if it was like most conventions -- hitting a strip club.
Some of the convention's requirements strike me as rather inappropriate in this case. For example, it requires that prisoners be allowed to prepare their own food. Should suicide bombers really be given kitchen implements? The convention also requires that prisoners receive cigarettes and musical instruments. Do we really want to send a message to the young musicians of the world that joining al-Qaeda is the ticket to the two things -- other than groupies -- they crave most?
E-mail your questions to andisheh@ creativeloafing.com.
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