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Limits and Liabilities in the 'War on Terror'

Friday, January 7, 2005; Page A18

The Bush administration, the Pentagon and the CIA are making plans for indefinite detention -- a life sentence without due process -- for those inmates at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere for whom there is insufficient evidence of guilt to justify a trial but who nevertheless are deemed too dangerous to be set free [front page, Jan. 2].

They argue that under the laws of war, these are "enemy combatants" -- a term that they conflate with, and distinguish from, "prisoners of war" as it suits their purposes -- and therefore can be held until the "global war on terror" is "won."

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Two faulty assumptions underlie this argument:

• The so-called global war on terror is comparable to other wars we have waged against enemy nations.

"Terror," however, is not a coherent enemy power, such as Germany and Japan were in World War II. It is a tactic used by the aggrieved and desperate and relatively powerless against the powerful anywhere in the world.

A "war on terror" is at best a metaphor -- not a reality -- and an inaccurate one at that, for the more "war" we wage, the more "terror" we spread. War cannot stop terror; it creates the chaotic conditions for its propagation, as seen in Iraq.

If the "war on terror" is not a real war, then the detainees at Guantanamo are not real POWs, because no government's surrender would bring the "hostilities" to an end.

• Persons for whom we have no evidence of criminal conduct pose a clear and present danger and therefore must be detained indefinitely.

In our legal system, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, not vice versa. The logic being used to support permanent incarceration is analogous to the infamous and racist logic of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Dred Scott decision -- that Arabs have no rights that Americans are bound to respect.

This government is arrogating to itself the right to imprison people indefinitely without due process on the grounds that they are "enemy combatants" -- a designation the administration alone determines without appeal. What is to stop the administration from applying the same designation not just to foreigners with Arabic names but to domestic dissidents as well?


Hampton, Va.

Our government is discussing what level of torture of suspected terrorists is acceptable for suspected terrorists and how they can be held for life without trial. We are thus discussing not whether any torture is acceptable nor whether imprisonment without trial is permis- sible in a democracy but how both can be done most efficiently and productively.

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