It's a crime it's a war

Thursday, September 14, 2006 at 02:05 PM

Before Sept. 11, 2001 had even passed into history, we faced a major choice.  How to treat the perpetrators of that day's deeds?  You all know which option the president chose.

If the "enemy" is stateless, amorphous, and limited to attacks that are basically criminal--kidnapping, murder, assault, blowing up private property--it seems to me that the rational and effective thing to do is to treat them as criminals.

So what exactly have we accomplished by deciding that we have a "war on terror" instead of a bunch of criminals that need to be tracked down and arrested?  It isn't just a semantic point.  It really isn't.

Since they are stateless, they are mobile, difficult to locate and pin down.  Finding and exposing them calls for what has traditionally been police work: investigation, surveillance, canvassing civilian neighborhoods, etc.  It also calls for cooperation across national boundaries, as police do via Interpol, and agency that has considerable expertise with far flung criminal conspiracies.

By treating the conflict as a war instead of a crime, you:

1. Raise the status of your opponents (a war is fought by "warriors" while crimes are perpetrated by "criminals"), which immediately provides them a patina of status and respect which they could not easily attain on their own.

  1. Raise the level of concern/fear of your own populace beyond that justified by a realistic assessment of the threat.

  2. Raise expectations as to how you must respond: "war" calls for a declaration of war, a shift from a peacetime economy to a wartime economy, mandatory military service (probably in the form of a draft), etc.

  3. Necessarily turn your opponents into "soldiers," which calls into play the international rules for treatment of enemy soldiers.  In the case of this "war on terror," that raises the very problems that this administration faces over how detainees must be treated, how they must be tried, and how they may be interrogated.

Imagine for a minute how our position and efforts might differ had we instead declared our intention to catch and punish a pack of "cowardly criminals who slaughtered thousands of innocents without warning."  Imagine how different the international atmosphere might be had we declared our unfailing commitment to protect all innocents--whether they be Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or other--from the criminal acts of extremists who send misguided young men to their certain deaths while themselves remaining in the relative safety and comfort of another country, watching the criminal deeds unfold on television.  Imagine if we had taken the simple step of ascertaining and publicizing how many Muslims had been at the World Trade Centers on that day, and how many had died.  Imagine if we had given prominent forums for the members of their families to express their outrage at the criminals.

Imagine if our president, instead of proclaiming a crusade had proclaimed instead our dedication to standing arm in arm with all people of good faith, no matter what that faith might be.

It's a crime that this is a war.  It really is.