Judith Butler’s April 1 "Guantánamo Limbo" intelligently discusses the failure of the Geneva Conventions to take account of "prisoners of the new war" and links this failure to its flawed premises regarding states.




Bloomington, Ind.

Judith Butler’s April 1 "Guantánamo Limbo" intelligently discusses the failure of the Geneva Conventions to take account of "prisoners of the new war" and links this failure to its flawed premises regarding states. Butler’s insistence that we need to rethink the premises of international law and global politics is correct, and recalls Hannah Arendt on "The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man" in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But Arendt’s primary concern was the fate of stateless people–refugees, civilian noncombatants in war zones–who are in all moral and legal respects innocent yet are rendered rightless and vulnerable by harsh geopolitical realities.

Butler’s piece is disturbing because it rhetorically likens terrorists to stateless civilians. But this is wrong. The new terror networks are symptomatic of the porous and "flexible" conditions of world order noted by many social theorists. And their members are stateless. But they are largely stateless by design. These are networks of people driven by extremist ideologies and committed to using terror against political and civilian targets indiscriminately by exploiting the openness of liberal societies.

Even Al Qaeda prisoners should be accorded humane treatment and a measure of due process (and, as in all cases, the death penalty is immoral). But it is perverse for Butler to present them as somehow the oppressed, abject Others of the global system. They are not poor African-American youth or oppressed Peruvian peasants or marginalized sexual minorities. They are not Greenpeace or Doctors Without Borders activists or felons apprehended in Berkeley or Chicago. They are combatants in a terrorist army, captured in Afghanistan because they were training to fulfill a fatwa against the United States. There is a reason they do not bear the "insignias" of war covered by the Geneva Conventions and are unconnected to any officially recognized army: They seek to use stealth to commit murder. That they do so in the name of a virulently anti-Western ideology is no reason for anyone on the left to regard them as victims.

Butler correctly promotes a serious legal discussion of the limits of the Geneva Conventions. But she wrongly implies that we ought to approach this topic as civil libertarians. We do need to figure out standards for the treatment of prisoners of the new war–and also better ways of taking prisoners, destroying the Al Qaeda terror network and dealing with the conditions that breed such terrorists. As human beings the terrorists deserve basic humane treatment. But they are not civilians, they are not innocent and they are capable of great harm. If there were doubts about this, the events of September 11 should have laid them to rest.







Princeton, N.J.

Jeffrey Isaac claims that I liken the Al Qaeda prisoners in Guantánamo to stateless populations, but he misreads me. In fact, Al Qaeda members all come from recognizable nation-states, but those nation-states are not necessarily parties to this conflict. One reason that the Defense Department gives for not considering them to be POWs is that the organization to which they belong is not a "high contracting party." My worry is only that if we restrict POW status to those who belong to recognizable nation-states, it could be a precedent for the treatment of stateless peoples in other conflicts. Although Isaac is right, and I agree, that Al Qaeda members are not stateless peoples, their treatment here could have long-term effects on how stateless people are treated.

I would also suggest that the dehumanization of the prisoners is supported, unfortunately, by a presumption that members of radical Islamic sects are outside the purview of the recognizably human. We have seen through racial profiling and violence against Arab-Americans in recent months how quickly US anger about the terrorist attacks has turned into knee-jerk racist attacks. The dispensability of Palestinian lives also raises the question of whose lives are valuable and grievable and whose are not.

Whereas the prisoners in Guantánamo, if they are guilty of violent acts (and shouldn’t this be established in a court?), are not "victims" in the sense that they perpetrated violence, any war prisoner can become disfranchised if not given the basic rights to which POWs are entitled. The Geneva Convention states clearly that combatants detained in a war effort should be considered POWs until such time as an independent tribunal determines that they do not merit such status. These prisoners have never been given that presumptive status, no tribunal has been convened and now the government tells us that some may well be detained indefinitely without trial or sure release. If, as Isaac maintains, they are deserving of humane treatment, I suggest we follow the conditions stipulated for the humane treatment of prisoners laid down by the Geneva accord to show we mean what we say.







Matamoras, Pa.

I don’t know which I admire more: Ted Kennedy’s career or Jack Newfield’s article ["The Senate’s Fighting Liberal," March 25]. In reading it, I was made aware of how closely I have lived history. My deepest thanks to Kennedy and Newfield.




Berkeley, Calif.

I felt like puking my guts out after reading Jack Newfield’s article on Ted Kennedy, which affirms the belief that the voters of Massachusetts are among the most gullible and stupid in the world.




Minden, Nev.

How refreshing to read something that isn’t a hit piece on Ted Kennedy! Too bad it can’t be broadcast on right-wing radio. My father told me more than forty years ago that people will vote Democratic when hungry but Republican as soon as their stomachs are full. I’m just thankful that the good people of Massachusetts have returned Kennedy to the Senate all these years, hungry or not.




West Linn, Ore.

Jack Newfield does a particularly good job of describing Kennedy’s ability to balance the commitment to progressive ideals with the need to find partnerships with essential Republican co-sponsors. He errs, however, in implying that the senator has not been able to forge a partnership with "the cranky caveman" Jesse Helms. In 1999, during my year as a legislative health policy fellow for Senator Kennedy, we got Helms to agree to co-sponsor a bill to require health plans and insurance companies to cover screening for colon cancer (one of those mandated benefits Republicans loathe). When the Kennedy chief of staff heard of our accomplishment (sealed by a strategic conversation between Kennedy and Helms on the floor of the impeachment-obsessed Senate), he declared this most improbable of political partnerships "newsworthy." I guess the news never got out.




Acton, Mass.

As Ted Kennedy slowly morphs into Honey Fitz, he is still twice the man that many others are. Those of us who wept for Jack and Bobby are still grateful that "though much is taken, much remains." We do wish, though, that Ted would use his massive influence to stop this nation’s race toward fascist imperialism. Compared with that threat, the minimum wage and the Alaskan wilderness pale.





Jack Newfield reports that in 1995 "Kennedy famously declared, ‘If the Democrats run for cover, if we become pale carbon copies of the opposition, we will lose–and deserve to lose.’" Hel-lo! You have to be over 50 to remember a time when Democrats did anything but.




Berkeley, Calif.

If the Senate really had a "fighting liberal," neither Ashcroft nor any of those corrupt, incompetent Bush appointees would have been confirmed. A fighting liberal would have stood up and just said No! Can you imagine what chance any of those creeps would have had if we had a Jesse Helms on our side?




Fleetwood, Pa.

It would be much easier to consider Ted Kennedy the Senate’s fighting liberal if he’d fought against NAFTA and the WTO. Both continue to do great harm to many Americans and to millions around the world.




Topeka, Kan.

Kudos on your cover–Ted Kennedy on a noble donkey! Intended or not, you published it right after Palm Sunday. It was, of course, on the first Palm Sunday that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.







Kelowna, B.C., Canada; New York City;

Washington, Mass.; Boston

In her excellent "Subject to Debate" column about the Gerald Amirault case [March 18] Katha Pollitt writes: "Massachusetts…is the only state in which people convicted in the 1980s wave of ritual child abuse cases are still in prison." Sadly, the ritual abuse trials didn’t end in the ’80s, nor have all the wrongfully convicted been released. As advocates for the wrongfully convicted, we know of a dozen unresolved cases similar to Fells Acres. For example:

Ohio: Nancy Smith, a single mother of four, was accused, with a mysterious man named "Joseph," of molesting children on her bus route. Police linked her with Joseph Allen, a man she’d never met who had a previous molestation conviction. Although the dates and place of the "crimes" were never fixed, the children failed to pick Allen out of a lineup and their accusations were contradictory and even impossible, Smith and Allen were convicted in 1994. Nation readers may remember the prosecutor in the Smith/Allen case–Greg White, who charged Cynthia Stewart for taking nude photos of her daughter in the bathtub ["Cynthia Stewart’s Ordeal," May 1, 2000].

North Carolina: Pat Figured’s girlfriend’s mother ran a daycare center at her home, where a child complained of intestinal pain and was suspected of having been sodomized. A social worker who believed in satanic ritual abuse interviewed the children. Eventually, the accusations against Figured included forcing the children to drink dog’s urine, burning Bibles in front of them and sodomizing them with a screwdriver. The jury ignored testimony that he was seldom at the center and never alone with the children. He was convicted in 1992.

Prescott, Ontario: More than 100 people were investigated and/or charged with child abuse. Over 200 children in a community of 4,500 were diagnosed as having been ritually abused. Allegations included infanticide and grave robbing. Half the children were taken from their families and placed in foster care.

There’s James Toward and Frank Fuster in Florida. Janet Reno, before she became US Attorney General, was personally involved in Fuster’s case. There’s Bruce Perkins and Frances and Daniel Keller in Texas, Paul Ingram in Washington and James Stoll in California. And, yes, in Massachusetts there’s still Gerald Amirault, as well as Robert Halsey, Shirley and Ray Souza, and Bernard Baran. There are fathers, like Bruce Clairmont of Massachusetts and Mike Hall of Mississippi, accused by their ex-wives of child abuse, whose children were subjected to the usual don’t-take-no-for-an-answer questioning.

Freeing these wrongly imprisoned people is not just about legal justice or relieving defendants’ suffering. Sex abuse hysteria drove families out of daycare, men from jobs involving little kids and adults from the sense that expressing affection toward children is good. Every person rotting in jail reminds us that terrible social damage was done by these cases (see www.








Surely the cover story for your April 1 issue should have been "Bush Goes Nucular"?






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