(A legitimate "POW," Vietnam, December 4, 1967)
I’ve been having a tough time deciding how I really feel about Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try September 11 suspects in federal courts. I suppose that what really bothers me about this issue is the way in which the administrations past and present have both been playing fast and loose with language, essentially wanting to have it both ways.
We’ve been told over and over again that acts of terror, such the September 11 attacks, fall outside the bounds of the legitimate conduct of war. In the aftermath of World War II, we prosecuted, and even executed, German and Japanese officers whom we determined to have overstepped these internationally recognized bounds and were therefore “war criminals” who had committed “atrocities.” Hence, they were not entitled to the rights traditionally accorded to prisoners of war, who are supposed to be treated humanely and respected as honorable opponents.
What it amounts to is that acts of terror are crimes; acts of war are not. And criminals need to be punished, not prisoners of war.
So it seems to me that, if we don’t try the 9/11 suspects, in either civilian or military courts, we are in effect conceding that they were merely waging war and not committing illegitimate acts of terror. The old saying, of course, is that “all’s fair in love and war,” but I don’t think that’s the position we can afford to take, legally or morally.
Just yesterday, I heard “El Rushbo,” as he likes to call himself, suggest that Holder’s decision represents the height of legal hypocrisy. Rush feels this way because Holder has reassured the country that, whether they’re found guilty or not guilty, the 9/11 suspects are not going to be released. Personally, I see no disconnect here. A not-guilty verdict would simply mean that they are legitimate prisoners of war after all, and we don’t release POWs until the war is over.
Having thought it through, then, I'm taking the following position: If we consider the 9/11 suspects to be terrorists, they need to be tried, convicted, and punished as such. If we consider them to be prisoners of war, they need to be held but treated humanely. While someone initially taken as a prisoner of war may later be determined to be a war criminal and a terrorist, that person cannot be both a terrorist and a prisoner of war. Ultimately, he or she is one or the other, not both.
The problem with holding these people as POWs, of course, is that we’re not at war with a national authority that can surrender, and how can we know that any individual Moslem extremist has indeed had a change of heart? Where or what is the endgame here? I wish I knew. --EFP