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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind By: Christopher Hitchens
Slate | Thursday, June 16, 2005


A favorite slice of reality TV in today's Iraq is the melodramatically named program Terrorism in the Grip of Justice. Aired on state-run Al Iraqiya, which doesn't require a satellite dish, it shows the confessions of captured "insurgents," mainly foreign fighters. When possible, it also shows the videos that these people have made, so that, for example, a man can be viewed as he slices a victim's throat and then viewed, looking much less brave, as he explains where he comes from, how he was taught to rehearse beheadings and throat-slittings on animals, and other insights into the trade. On occasion, these characters are confronted with the families of their victims. At other times, they have been able to tell the families of the missing what happened to their loved ones. The aim is to demystify the holy warriors and also to encourage civilians to call in with further tips.

Some of the confessions, such as one from an alleged Syrian intelligence officer who said that the insurgency was run by Syria, are a little too convenient. And the possibility exists that other confessions are either staged or coerced. Nonetheless, the program, which originated in the northern city of Mosul, has been very influential in exposing the origins and character of the forces that are bent on wrecking Iraqi society.

Terrorism in the Grip of Justice could only be shown once the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi government had been made. The United States could not have put any of these people on television, because the Geneva Conventions forbid the exhibiting of prisoners. (I don't know what the law would say about showing the program on U.S. television, and in any case the video-beheadings recorded by the captured perpetrators would be too hideous for mass consumption.) In my opinion, at any rate, the elected Iraqi authorities are well within their rights in using this means of propaganda. Indeed, they are entitled to all the presumptions of a war of self-defense.

The position of the United States is different, because not only is it a signatory to the Geneva protocols, it is also the power that has pressed other nations to both sign and observe them. (It was also the United States that pressed all member states of the United Nations to sign Eleanor Roosevelt's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia at first declined to do.) Any wavering on the part of Washington thus has consequences far beyond itself.

The forces of al-Qaida and its surrogate organizations are not signatory to the conventions and naturally express contempt for them. They have no battle order or uniform and are represented by no authority with which terms can be negotiated. Nor can they claim, as actual guerrilla movements like the Algerian FLN have done in the past, to be the future representatives of their countries or peoples. In Afghanistan and Iraq, they sought to destroy the electoral process that alone can confer true legitimacy, and they are in many, if not most, cases not even citizens of the countries concerned. Their announced aim is the destruction of all nonbelievers, and their avowed method is indiscriminate and random murder. They are more like pirates, hijackers, or torturers—three categories of people who have in the past been declared outside the protection of any law.

The administration therefore deserves at least some sympathy in its confrontation with an enemy of a new type. I should very much like to know how a Gore administration would have dealt with the hundreds of foreign sadists taken in arms in Afghanistan. I should also like to know how other Western governments, which are privately relieved that the United States assumed responsibility for the last wave, expect to handle the next wave of fundamentalist violence in their own societies. No word on this as yet.

An axiom of the law states that justice is more offended by one innocent person punished than by any number of guilty persons unapprehended. I say frankly that I am not certain of the applicability of this in the present case. Mullah Omar's convoy in Afghanistan was allowed to escape because there was insufficient certainty to justify bombing it. Several detainees released from Guantanamo have reappeared in the Taliban ranks, once again burning and killing and sabotaging. The man whose story of rough interrogation has just been published in Time had planned to board a United Airlines flight and crash it into a skyscraper. I want to know who his friends and contacts were, and so do you, hypocrite lecteur.

You may desire this while also reserving the right to demand that he has a lawyer present at all times. But please observe where we stand now. Alberto Gonzales was excoriated even for asking, or being asked, about the applicability of Geneva rules. Apparently, Guantanamo won't do as a holding pen until we decide how to handle and classify these people. But meanwhile, neither will it do to "render" any suspects to their countries of origin. How many alternatives does this leave? Is al-Qaida itself to be considered a "ticking bomb" or not? How many of those who express concern about Guantanamo have also been denouncing the administration for being too lenient about ignoring warnings and missing opportunities for a pre-atrocity roundup? I merely ask. I also express the wish that more detainees be brought, like the wretched American John Walker Lindh, before a court.

About Amnesty International's disgraceful performance, however, I can tell as well as ask. I was at one point quite close to its London headquarters, and I used to both carry and return messages for the organization when I went as a reporter to screwed-up countries. The founding statutes were quite clear: An Amnesty local was to adopt three "prisoners of conscience," one from either side of the Cold War and one from a "neutral" state. Letters were to be written to the relevant governments and to newspapers in free countries. Though physical torture and capital punishment were opposed in all cases, no overt political position was to be taken. (I remember there was quite a row when an Amnesty "country report" on Argentina went so far as to describe a guerrilla raid as "daring.") By adhering to these rules, AI became a credible worldwide group to which even the most repressive governments sometimes had to pay attention. All honor to its founder Peter Benenson, who died earlier this year.

And now look. I think it is fairly safe to say that not one detainee in Guantanamo is there because of an expression of opinion. (And those whose "opinion" is that all infidels must die are not exactly prisoners of conscience.) Morally neutral on this point, apparently, Amnesty nonetheless finds its voice by describing the prison itself as "the gulag of our times." No need to waste words here: Not everyone in the gulag was a "prisoner of conscience," either. But if an organization that ostensibly protects the rights of prisoners is unaware of the nature of a colossal system of forced labor and arbitrary detention—replete with physical torture, starvation, and brutal execution—then the moral compass has become disordered beyond repair. This is not even neutrality between the fireman and the fire. It surely expresses a covert sympathy with the aims and objectives of jihad and an overt, if witless and sinister, hatred of the United States. If only this were the only symptom of that tendency.


Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.


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