END OF THE RIGHTS OF MAN?
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.