It is one of those stories where Americans have to get stop thinking with their guts and use their brains instead. Guts can be useful, but not this time.
Three Navy SEALs who captured a highly sought terrorist in Iraq are facing court martials because of allegations that they abused him—speaking of guts, they supposedly punched him in his. It is unfortunate that the SEALS are being prosecuted rather than decorated, and it makes the Navy look unappreciative of their own men. The terrorist, Ahmed Hashim Abed, is believed to be behind the murder and mutilation of four Blackwater USA security guards in Fallujah in 2004. Yes, capturing him was a good thing.
Beating him up wasn’t, however; especially after Abu Ghraib, where a breakdown in the chain of command, mixed signals from the brass and a group of badly trained and led recruits combined to create one of the worst and most damaging scandals the U.S. military has ever faced. Soldiers are not permitted to abuse prisoners—not before Abu Ghraib, and certainly not after. When they do, it is an offense that carries serious punishment.
The offense is the abuse. It has nothing to do with the heinous acts of the detainee, or how despicable he may be relative to his captors. The alleged offense itself triggers the charges, because to do otherwise would be to tacitly endorse prisoner abuse. When that happens, more Abu Ghraibs are right around the corner. If there is a credible claim that a captive was abused, the military has no choice but to go by the book. (The lawyer for the SEALS takes the position that no complaint by an accused terrorist should ever be taken as credible. The same logic once allowed police to beat confessions out of arrested suspects.)
It is not at all certain that the Seals will be convicted. They had the option of going to Captain’s Mast for these charges, a non-judicial punishment, but demanded a court-martial so they could prove their innocence. If the Seals are acquitted because there was not, in fact, any abuse, then the system will have worked. If the Seals are shown to have injured their captive while he was under their control, then the punishment will be appropriate.
There are many Americans, the loudest of which are conservative talk show hosts, who are upset about the proceedings. They are also primarily the same individuals who thought Abu Ghraib wasn’t such a big deal, and they are making exactly the same ethically invalid arguments now that they made then. This letter to the
San Angelo (Texas) Times is typical:
“I find it difficult to believe that brave Navy Seals are being court martialed instead of being given a medal for the capture of a ruthless murderer and terrorist. This terrorist had been on the run since 2004. He masterminded the killing of four Americans who were guarding a shipment of food, burning their bodies, dragging the bodies through the streets, and then hanging two of them from a bridge.
The Navy Seals did not shoot this godless terrorist; they captured him. He later had a bloody lip and accused the Navy Seals of hitting him. I think the American families of the four dead Blackwater employees should be the ones to pass judgment on the terrorist and the Navy Seals.
We are in a war, not a social club debate, and bad things do happen. If a terrorist gets a busted lip or a black eye, so be it. Ask the families of the men whose heads were cut off with a knife which they would have preferred, their husbands or sons being taken prisoner with a busted lip or the horror of a brutal death shown on TV to the world.”
But that’s not the standard. The Seals are not being judged on terrorist standards of conduct; they are being judged on the Navy’s standards, as they should be. The letter-writer’s reasoning would justify beatings, torture and many other atrocities—exactly what the Navy is trying to prevent. The SEALs have to be tried precisely because so many Americans think that our enemies should be treated according to how they treat us, allowing their terrible conduct to lower our values. That must not happen. It doesn’t matter that a detainee is a terrorist, or “godless,” or a murderer, or would cut off our heads if he had the chance.
What matters is that he was captured by American soldiers.
We should have great empathy for the Navy SEALs who face this predicament. For our own sake, however, and the preservation of American values, they have to be tried. It is an ethical necessity.