August 16, 2005

Roberts on Terrorism

The Boston Globe brought Roberts' stance on handling terrorists to our attention. He had this to say about amending the Geneva Conventions:

... Both argued that the United States should not ratify a proposed amendment to the Geneva Convention granting insurgent groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization the same status as official armies.

The proposed amendments ''would treat many terrorist organizations as if they were countries engaged in war, legitimizing their activities and offering them protections and courtesies that should not be extended to common criminals," Roberts wrote.

Last month, just before President Bush nominated him, Roberts showed that he still is skeptical about applying the laws of war to terrorists.

As an appeals court judge, he upheld the Bush administration's plan to try Guantanamo Bay detainees before a military commission, overturning a lower-court ruling that such tribunals violated the Geneva Conventions. ...

See we have this thing in our country where even common criminals, and for that matter, uncommon criminals like serial killers, abortion clinic bombers, Timothy McVeigh, and members of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan caught in the middle of a hate crime, get access to a fair trial. And we give them fair trials not because they're particularly virtuous or deserving, but because the rest of us deserve to live in a world where no matter how much the government hates you, you can't be killed out of hand or locked up without due process of law.

The battlefield is anomalous to this, in that the expected state of things is people shooting at each other. It's not unreasonable to say that you apply different standards when your life is in constant peril. But the Geneva Conventions largely apply to what happens when that issue of threat is in question. They apply to people who have been disarmed and are now in custody, to civilians who were never armed in the first place. They mandate the behavior of people with weapons towards people who are at their total mercy.

Everybody knows what happens in countries where the government doesn't have to prove their claims about an individual's behavior, which is that sooner or later they make things up and go after innocent people. It's like clockwork.

We can see it in the horror of Abu Ghraib, where we know for a fact that innocent people were detained and tortured. We can see it in the moral disgrace of Guantanamo, where numerous individuals have had to be released to their home governments without any supporting evidence that they committed a crime and after having been subjected in many cases to degrading treatment. To be selfish, applying a standard of due process in these instances would not only have protected innocent detainees, it would have protected America from making a terrible mistake that will continue to haunt us.

Any 'release valve' for the requirement that a government provide due process will sooner or later lead to abuse. It will lead to people who are simply disliked, either institutionally or by an individual with authority, getting picked up on false charges and disappeared. Considering that this has happened in the last three years, right here in America and abroad through the actions of US government employees, I think I'm resting my claim on solid ground.

Due process isn't about them, it's about us. It's about who we are as a country, our confidence in the strength of a free and fair society, our belief that we will win not in spite of offering justice to all, but because of it.

Leah at Corrente recently offered the case of Ahmed Ressam as an example of why our system of justice is superior, why it deserves to be championed as a standard for the world instead of treated like an inconvenient albatross:

[from a Seattle Times article about the Ressam case] Through 16 months of detention and trial, Ressam stayed true to his training and maintained the secrets of his jihad. But after his conviction, he was shaky isolated from family and his Islamist brothers, and still taking medicine for the malaria he had caught in the Afghanistan camps.

He grew attached to his lawyers, in particular to Oliver, a small, light-haired woman fluent in French. He would not shake hands with her, as he did with his male lawyers, but he spoke to her gently.

Her terrorist client, Oliver said, was "very sweet. Very polite."

Ressam confided to his lawyers that he had found the trial surprisingly fair. The judge had treated him respectfully. The experience was not at all what he expected of the country he had been taught to hate.

Ressam also told Oliver he was unsure of the morality of his plan to massacre innocent holiday travelers. He said he needed to study the Quran to see if he had misunderstood passages.

So when Justice Department lawyers offered a deal to reduce his sentence, Ressam was ready to listen. (my emphasis) The terms were simple: His minimum sentence would be cut in half, to 27 years. In return, he had to testify against an associate, Mokhtar Haouari, and others. He had to reveal all he knew about al-Qaida plots, training, tactics.

Ahmed Ressam became a terrorist turncoat. ...

... Who gets credit for turning Ressam? Everyone reponsible for Ressam receiving a fair trail, as spelled out in our constitution, everyone - the prosecutors, the defense lawyers, all of them court-appointed public defenders, and finally Judge Coughenor. ...

As the article Leah quoted goes on to explain, Ressam provided invaluable information. Not because he was tortured, but because he decided that he liked us more than the people who had trained him to be a terrorist. He liked us more because he was treated fairly. He re-evaluated his belief system because it had been proved to him that America wasn't what he'd been told it was and he decided to help us.

Due process for all: It's not just a good idea, it works.

Posted by natasha at August 16, 2005 11:13 AM | Law/Justice | Technorati links |

The battlefield is anomalous to this, in that the expected state of things is people shooting at each other. It's not unreasonable to say that you apply different standards when your life is in constant peril. But the Geneva Conventions largely apply to what happens when that issue of threat is in question. ...

I think you meant to say, "..when that issue of threat is [no longer] in question."

Posted by: ascap_scab at August 16, 2005 04:52 PM

Yeah, I did. Yeesh.

There are days when the having of no editors doesn't seem so hot ;)

Posted by: natasha at August 16, 2005 05:09 PM

Natasha, this is an excellent essay. I've been wanting to do something along these lines for awhile. What these guys don't get is that when we commit acts that deny this fundamental fairness and decency - we are the ones hurt by those actions. It is our humanity that has been jeopardized.

Posted by: Mary at August 16, 2005 10:24 PM