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Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 2002 / 16 Shevat, 5762

Barbara Amiel

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Pity the al-Qa'eda detainees? Why is liberal 'torture' kosher? -- LONDON | THE irritating business of being in harmony, morally speaking, with the United States against terrorism ended last week in the European media. Off came the restraint and out flopped the flabby belly of reflex anti-Americanism.

I do believe we are forcing unbearable humiliation and true psychological torture on the prisoners in Cuba, but not by shackling. Being shackled or blindfolded is no humiliation for an al-Qa'eda member. These detainees have the mentality of medieval warriors; chains and physical restraints only pay homage to their fierce repute.

However, the United States has announced with pride that the prisoners are guarded by military personnel who include women. That is against every aspect of Taliban culture and a humiliation far worse than being denied a prayer mat.

In maximum security, an inmate's bodily functions are monitored day and night. Until recently, it was taken for granted that inmates in these conditions, never mind Islamic terrorists, would be guarded by same-sex guards.

But this aspect of the prisoners' detention doesn't ruffle a hair on liberal heads. The same people who protest against the shaving of beards mention with an element of pride that there are female guards in Guantanamo.

Al-Qa'eda and Taliban terrorists would be psychologically devastated in ways we cannot even imagine by the sight of female soldiers, but the infliction of the mixed sex army is the self-righteous torture of the liberal society.

It reminds me of an account in Marq de Villiers's book White Tribe Dreaming. He tells how the Zulus would negotiate surrender to the enemy tribe. They knew that, in surrendering, they would be put to death: the only condition demanded was that they be put to death by fellow warriors and not by youths or old women.

For myself, I can't emphasise strongly enough how ludicrous I think it is to change our culture to suit that of these captured terrorists. But I find it hypocritical that we make such a fuss over what only adds stature to the detainees according to their own culture, while applauding the real psychological torture we knowingly inflict because it happens to be our sacred cow.

The controversy over whether or not the detainees are prisoners of war covered by the Geneva Conventions is muddled. No reading of the Geneva Conventions can possibly justify the inclusion of al-Qa'eda or Taliban prisoners.

The Independent asserted that the classification of these prisoners by America as "unlawful combatants" was "yet another example of the folly of declaring war on terrorism, for if prisoners are taken in this war, surely they are prisoners?"

The Geneva Conventions are worth a read. Apart from the fact, as the columnist Mark Steyn pointed out, that Article 26 decrees that prisoners should be given their ration of tobacco (no petitions for that on front pages), there are several other requirements whose absence has not yet been regretted, such as the need to give all prisoners athletic equipment and sports facilities.

The conventions clearly define the requirements for PoW status. Schedule III, Article 4 states: PoWs who are not members of a regularly constituted army can qualify if they (a) have a proper chain of command (b) wear a fixed distinctive sign that can be recognised at a distance (c) carry arms openly and (d) conduct operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

None of these applies to al-Qa'eda or the Taliban. And it is worth noting that the Taliban were not the government of Afghanistan. They were an outlawed group that took over the country by force and were refused recognition by almost every country, as well as the UN.

The detainees in Cuba fit into the recognised grouping of saboteurs and spies. They are totally outside military conventions. Theoretically, they could be shot after a summary court martial. The notion put forward by the Independent that, by declaring this a war on terrorism, the detainees must be treated like prisoners of war is tuppenny sophistry.

The rhetorical device of a president declaring war on terrorism doesn't confer legal status on assassins under the Geneva Convention. Presidents have declared war on drugs, poverty and sin, but it hardly follows that the authorities have to treat arrested drug dealers as prisoners of war.

This doesn't mean that the detainees have no rights or that they may be subjected to inhumane treatment. It simply means that they have no rights under the Geneva Conventions or any other convention regulating the conduct of belligerents.

The Geneva Conventions may sometimes be honoured only in the breach, but they represented an important step in the "civilising" of war, as paradoxical as the juxtaposing of those words may be.

In primitive times, all wars were total wars. No distinctions were made between combatants and non-combatants. The victor would sack, burn, kill the men and take the women as slaves. The invention last century of weapons such as submarines that could target civilian liners and bombs used in aerial combat raised the spectre of "total war" again.

The 1949 Conventions were enacted to prevent this, by making distinctions between combatants and non-combatants. The very people who are now invoking those Conventions to cover combatants who clearly flout all the rules, ie terrorists, are undermining the whole point of the Geneva Conventions. If they are successful, we will regress to primitive warfare.

The distinction between combatants and non-combatants may often be breached, but it is at the heart of "conflict resolution". Many of our enemies in the war against terrorism use civilian populations as shields.

Iraq put its women and children on roofs and inside buildings to protect Saddam Hussein and military installations. Arab powers have allowed Hamas and Hizbollah to place themselves smack in the middle of refugee camps. It is a clever tactic.

If Israel does not bomb the camps, the terrorists make their explosives and organise with impunity. If Israel does bomb them, it reaps the whirlwind of a bad press.

We might still avoid total war, I suppose, by using the notion of "open cities" - as Rome was in the Second World War, where both sides declared that military personnel and equipment would not be stationed in the area. This saved Rome's ancient monuments. But the Taliban and al-Qa'eda would aim first for the Coliseum, as a non-Islamic site that had to be brought down.

Meanwhile, the United States has the greatest interest of any nation in protecting the validity of the Geneva Conventions. It has uniformed soldiers all over the world, doing much of the work that the UN and the EU want done.

Chanting the mantra of anti-Americanism may play well in the comfy morning conferences of some British newspapers, where leader writers can all huddle together in the warmth of shared animosity and their quasi-socialist fogs, but it is a false bonhomie.

They may clothe themselves in morality, demanding the protective mantle of the Geneva Conventions rather than the orange jumpsuits of the US Army, but we need no little boy to see that their Emperor is naked and their colour is pink.

JWR contributor Barbara Amiel is a columnist with London's Daily Telegraph, where this column originated. Comment by clicking here.

12/18/01:What those in the London salons don't -- or won't -- see
12/04/01: We are not risking world war so women can show their ankles
11/20/01:"Anti-terrorism" has become the Western world's equivalent of the Arabian Nights' "open sesame"
11/06/01: We must rediscover a war mentality that persists through vicissitudes
10/31/01: The West is fighting to rescue Islam, not destroy it

© 2001, Barbara Amiel