When the Allies brought leaders of the Third Reich to account, they held the trials in Nuremberg, Germany. When they tried members of Japan’s general staff, the venue was Tokyo. But, as everyone knows, al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners are being shipped not to Kabul, not to the Hague, not even to Pelican Bay or Leavenworth — but to the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo, Cuba. It is here that they’ll be interrogated and, probably, face trial — not at the hands of international jurists, but at the say-so of American military officers. The choice of Cuba seems a little, well, recherché in a Papillon sort of way, although in these heady times, when our country has entered a rococo period of imperial whim, we could pretty much hold the trials in the pope’s bedroom.
Location concerns aside, the Afghan roundups raise another question, since America considers its detainees not prisoners of war but, instead, “unlawful combatants” — which, according to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, means our hands will not be tied by that old Geneva Convention thing. Now, obviously, al Qaeda members, who wore no uniforms with insignia, would not be considered captured soldiers, but why not the Afghan Talibs? For that matter, are we saying that merely trying to repel an American invasion constitutes a war crime? Does this mean that only American forces are permitted to wage war? Or does it imply something else, namely, that the administration doesn’t consider the Afghanistan dustup really a war after all, but, as Molly Ivins has called it, a simple police action masquerading as a war?
“Secretary Rumsfeld is not the one to determine who is a POW and who is not protected by the Geneva Convention,” Human Rights Watch legal adviser James Ross told the Weekly. “The convention says that people captured during war are presumed to be prisoners of war unless otherwise determined by a competent tribunal. And that’s not just in the Geneva Convention, it’s something the U.S. military signed onto in 1997.”
Ross also noted that even though the U.S. never recognized the Taliban government, it is bound by the Geneva Convention to treat its soldiers as prisoners of war and that even certain al Qaeda members might be entitled to POW status.
Why should Americans even care what happens to men who presumably didn’t think twice about putting bullets into the backs of the heads of their own prisoners?
“It’s not a matter of idealism,” answered Ross. “Our military recognizes that how it treats other POWs will affect how our own soldiers will be treated in the future when they are captured by other countries. That’s why it has taken these issues seriously in the past.”
A few other questions remain. What of the 14-year-old Talib who allegedly shot dead Green Beret Sergeant Nathan Chapman? Is his action (shooting a uniformed invader) considered an act of war? An act of terror? An act of murder? Would he, in the manner pioneered by this country, be tried as an adult and possibly executed once he turns 21? Of course, since he has escaped his captors, talk of a trial for him is moot for now. But this in turn raises a new question: Will the fugitive 14-year-old now be the focus of John Walsh’s TV show, America’s Most Wanted?
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
The Staples Center ice rink covered with tiny promotional Chevrolet cushions (and a smattering of teddy bears) during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships because flower bouquets have been banned since September 11 . . . LAX men’s-room stalls etched with scenes of Osama bin Laden blowing a figure labeled “U.S. Marine.”
READ MY COLD, BLUE LIPS
Now that George W. Bush has announced that a tax raise will be enacted over his “dead body,” the question arises: Does this mean that any proposal for such an increase will be considered a death threat against the president — or even an act of terrorism? In a perhaps-related story, the country is breathing a little easier with the announcement that the pretzel that brought down the president last weekend was not of a “weaponized”-grade variety as first feared.
Too, all the “lost weekend” and “off the wagon” scuttlebutt was quelled once the pretzel was produced for the press. (Eyebrows had earlier been raised when the president mentioned that he regained consciousness before halftime of a football playoff match he was watching on TV — even though his blackout had begun during the seventh game of the World Series.)
Still, the Weekly has learned that Bush’s personal security team is taking a closer look at Laura Bush’s slow response time as her husband battled the pretzel. (She claims to have been “in another room” while he lay choking.) While no one at this point is yet using words like “black widow” or “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson,” they are recalling press reports about the first lady’s obsessive penchant for leaving pretzels out for the president. As recently as late November, Newsweek’s Martha Brant reported:
Mrs. Bush, however . . . ordered a basket of pretzels. She’d pop one in her mouth and then nudge the basket down to the other end of the table or over to her husband. There we were in the Air Force One conference room with a war going on passing around the pretzels. At one point, a pretzel went AWOL on the president and he started coughing. Mrs. Bush was just beginning to answer a question when she looked over at her husband, who had his hands clasped at his ribcage. “He’s giving himself the Heimlich maneuver,” she said, breaking into laughter.
Laughter indeed. Not only this, but last June a story filed by the L.A. Times’ Christopher Reynolds contained this seemingly playful reference that has suddenly taken on a new, ominous tone: “Attention, President Bush. If you misplaced a pretzel on or about May 22 in your residence, rest assured that it is in the custody of Colin Hansen, a fifth-grader from Ivanhoe Elementary School in Los Angeles, who found the aforementioned pretzel while touring the White House.” Hmm . . . perhaps young Hansen should be in line to receive a medal for saving the president’s life.
THE WEAKEST LINKS
Last November the American Council of Trustees and Alumni published a tract about the war against terrorism with the scrumptious title Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It. Among its findings? That “college and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response to the attacks.” If the reader detects the white-gloved hands of second lady Lynn Cheney and Senator Joe Lieberman behind this bit of academic witch-hunting, you are correct — they are co-founders of ACTA, which is one of those overfunded Washington organizations devoted to exposing the degradation of traditional academic standards across our great land. The November rant was notable for an appendix that listed 117 cases in which faculty or students betrayed the war effort, either through loose lips in the classroom or by parading subversive slogans (“An eye for an eye leaves the world blind”) at peace demonstrations. Although in the resulting uproar ACTA thoughtfully removed the names of the offending miscreants from its appendix, the damage, as Vin Scully would say, had been done. Perhaps the document’s most damning exposure was that not one Los Angeles–area college or university (certainly not UCLA or USC) had produced a dissenting quote — while UC Berkeley alone garnered 11. (The unbowdlerized list, by the way, is available. If you’d like to add your name to Cheney and Lieberman’s dishonor roll, see The Nation’s “tattletale” site.)