Financial Times Editorial - Torture breeds terror
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: September 30 2006 03:00 | Last updated: September 30 2006 03:00
For decades, America was the moral leader of the world on the laws of war. But now President George W. Bush has traded that moral high ground for a few paltry votes - maybe not even enough to save the Republicans from losing the House of Representatives in the coming elections.
Earlier this week, he strong-armed his own party and terrified the Democrats into passing a new military tribunals law that gives him the power to detain indefinitely anyone who meets a shockingly broad new definition of an "unlawful enemy combatant"; strips detainees in US military prisons of the sacred right of "habeas corpus", or the right to challenge their detention in federal court; and immunises US officials from prosecution for the worst of what they did at Abu Graib, or in the secret prisons where the most valuable captives were held.
Of course, in America's divided system of government, neither the president nor even the Congress has the last word: the new law will certainly be challenged in court, perhaps all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Ironically, one of the first detainees to challenge it could be Salem Ahmed Hamdan, the man who made history in June by persuading the Supreme Court to declare Mr Bush's military tribunals illegal in the first place.
The Supreme Court told Mr Bush to go away and get congressional authorisation for the tribunals, which he had tried to set up on his own. But the court did not give him or the Congress carte blanche to write whatever rules they wanted - and many, perhaps a majority of the justices, will not like what he came up with.
They are likely to be particularly concerned by the provisions stripping detainees of the right to go to court. That part of the law could face an almost immediate test, as Mr Hamdan - whose case is now back in a federal district court - will almost certainly claim that it violates the US constitution. His case could end up back before the Supreme Court, some time in the next couple of years.
But if, as seems likely, a protracted court battle still lies ahead before any of the detainees can actually be tried under the new military tribunals law, one can be forgiven for wondering what all this haste has achieved. Even if it saves a few Republican seats - which is far from certain - it will surely do little to help bring terrorists to justice.
Indeed, it could do quite the opposite. Intelligence assessments leaked in the US and Britain, just as Congress was putting the final touches to the new bill, should have forced legislators to think about the unintended consequences of their actions.
Those assessments argued persuasively that America's war on terrorism has so far done little more than radicalise an entire generation of Muslims around the world. The new bill may accentuate that trend: how else can young Muslims be expected to react to a bill that legalises the torture of their compatriots?
Mr Bush seems genuinely to think he needs these measures to protect Americans from terrorism. But he is wrong. Ordinary Americans will be paying for decades to come for the short-sighted strategies of their president and his party, and the failure of the Democrats to stand fast against a law that is certainly immoral and possibly unconstitutional.
The courts may strike down big parts of the new law, but the damage has already been done.