This is part of one essay for a planned collection, tentatively titled "Drifting Ever Near the Rocks: Essays on 21st-Century America." - mwb
The abiding lesson of the attacks of September 11, 2001 is that no one may attack the United States with impunity. An attack on the scale of 9/11 demands firm, resolute action to redress the insult offered to our flag. It is inconceivable that any administration could have been so inert as to refuse to answer al-Qaeda's attack on U.S. soil.
But it is the aftermath and effect of President Bush's promise that "they're going to hear all of us soon" that presents the most troubling moral issue arising from America's response to 9/11. To fulfill its duty to do something to strike back at the terrorists, the Bush Administration has propounded a mythic war against al-Qaeda, misinforming and misguiding both the domestic and international communities.
In seeking America's revenge on the terrorists who brought their campaign of intimidation to our shores, the President declared "war" on al-Qaeda. To understand the moral error thus committed, we turn to Rush Limbaugh. In his book "The Way Things Ought to Be," Limbaugh noted that "words have meaning." His principle was most notably applied to Bill Clinton's famous dissembly on the meaning of the word "is." To be valid, Limbaugh's assertion must be universally applicable. That is, we must believe that the word "war" has meaning, as in fact it does.
And it is in the meaning of the word war that George Bush's dissembly on the nature of America's response to 9/11 comes sharply into focus. Thus, the incivility of America's treatment of al-Qaeda (and to a lesser degree, Taliban) captives is made plain.
It is a hard, and I'm sure will be an unpopular notion that the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighers captured in Afghanistan and held until recently at Camp X-ray at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are not enemy prisoners of war, and should not be treated as EPWs, for the simple reason that the United States was never at war with al-Qaeda. Regardless of the Bush Administration's rhetoric, the U.S. did not go to war with al-Qaeda, except in a rhetorical sense because it could not, by definition, go to war with that organization.
War is conflict between sovereign states; despite al-Qaeda's influence, despite its riches, under no circumstances can it be said to qualify for the status of a sovereign state. It does not perform any of the functions of a sovereign state; it does not levy taxes, nor print nor coin money, nor maintain diplomatic relations with any sovereign state.
Al-Qaeda may have official, semi-official, or unofficial links and lines of communication with sovereign governments. Those contacts, and the operatives who maintain them, do not constitute a diplomatic corps acting on behalf of a sovereign state. Al-Qaeda fighers in Afghanistan, Iraq (if there are, or were any in Iraq) and Islamic regions of Africa do not constitute a national army, which is another of the marks of a sovereign state.
Then there is the simple fact that the community of nations has not granted al-Qaeda membership among their number. Make no mistake about it - al-Qaeda is not, and never has been, a sovereign state capable of making war and being warred upon.
The Taliban were a different story. They may have been de facto the rulers of Afghanistan, before being chased from power by the wrath of the United States in 2002. But the international community is under no burden to extend the respectability and dignity of statehood to a revolutionary junta. The world community rightly withheld recognition, and the rights attendant to it, from the Taliban regime in Kabul.
Turning to the fate of the al-Qaeda operatives who were held for so long at Guantanamo Bay, we must acknowledge that if they are EPWs (which would justify excluding them from the U.S. courts) and are subject to the provisions of the various conventions and treaties on the law of war, then the U.S. must grant their organization, al-Qaeda the dignity of sovereign statehood and the respectability that goes with that status.
The rights and duties of statehood are mutual corollaries: if the international community grants a group of people the rights of statehood, they impose upon them the duties of "good citizenship" inherent in statehood. If the international community imposes on a group of people the duties of statehood, then they must confer also the dignity and rights of sovereign statehood.
The difficulty this presents for the Bush Administration is obvious. Al-Qaeda's connection to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 made that organization collectively Public Enemy Number One in the United States. To confer any sort of dignity or diplomatic nicety on al-Qaeda, its operatives, or least of all its leader, Osama bin Laden would be antithetical to the national urge to strike back, to avenge the dead.
So how did the United States come to the absurd position of making, or attempting to make - or more trenchantly, appearing to attempt to make war on a non-national entity? It is beyond the bounds of reason to believe that a state can make war on a non-national state, as noted above. Fundamentally, the question is how did America fall into the error of doing what it was unable, by definition to do?
There's more of this to come, never fear. mwb
Mike Beatty is a wanderer, a good Irish Catholic boy born in the heart of Mormon. His formation was in the Midwest, but he moved to the Deep South for college, returned to his Midwest roots, and is now mired in the heart of Texas. He has been a member of the South City Fiction Workshop in St. Louis, MO
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7.7.04 @ 1:16a
One word here: Semantics.
We didn't declare war on Al-qaeda, but rather on terrorism as an institution. Al-qaeda was just the first target in that war on terror, and any country that supports or harbors terrorists. Seems you are looking for an argument, but I'm looking forward to your continuing the essay. I'm interested to see where you take this. Keep it coming, Michael!
7.7.04 @ 2:26p
What Todd said.
Great piece, Michael, and you seem to be hitting the nail on the head and identifying many complexities. This is not a war at all, it is a giant police action (except for a three-week war to knock off a state sponsor of terrorism in Iraq.) I'm looking forward to seeing where you're going.
7.7.04 @ 3:08p
Speaking of police action . . . stay tuned for the follow-up.