Dangerous justice

September 14, 2006

Does it matter that President Bush's plans for military commissions at Guantanamo are unjust? That's the essential question. They're clearly unjust - but, in this case, is that so wrong?

Inherent in the administration's rules for the commissions is the understanding that suspects are subject to physical abuse in the course of interrogations. Frankly, throughout much of the world that's standard practice. Additionally, evidence can be used to secure a conviction even when it's not made available to the suspect or his lawyer. Well, in Russia, a suspect not only can be convicted on the basis of secret evidence but also can stand trial for having broken a secret law - and never be allowed to know what that law says.

So, why not a little rough-and-ready justice for terrorists who target the U.S.?

The objection, it seems to us, is twofold. First, in setting up tribunals explicitly designed to railroad the suspects who appear before them, the Bush administration is making the argument that the American legal system and Anglo-American legal traditions are inadequate. The American freedoms that the president so often boasts about turn out to be dainty things - and so to protect them, they must be locked away. It's a vote of no confidence in the American way - and if the president of the United States has lost his faith in American strength and in the American example to the world, why shouldn't everyone else, American and foreigner alike?

The second objection follows from the first. Here in the U.S. proper, life is still about as free now as it was five years ago, so why should a little brutality at an offshore site be of concern? Because of the precedents that the administration's military-commission bill would establish - not only in condoning the abuse of detainees and the misuse of evidence but also in making it explicit that the Geneva Conventions will be adhered to except in cases where they won't be, and that the courts will have no power to review that.

The administration is resisting an attempt by three Republican senators to narrow the scope of future tribunals to suspects engaged in anti-U.S. hostilities. It's nearly a certainty that the temptation will eventually arise - for this administration or some subsequent one - actually to broaden the scope of the tribunal system. It's an invitation to step out onto a slippery slope, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Given the timing of the bill, just weeks before midterm elections, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that the administration's motives are not so much about justice as about politics. It's a shabby way to commemorate the losses of 9/11.

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