Wednesday, June 16, 2004

“There’s a reason why we sign these treaties: to protect my son in the military,” Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., hissed at the attorney general through his enormous teeth. “That’s why we have these treaties, so when Americans are captured they are not tortured. That’s the reason in case anybody forgets it.”

Well … sorta.

The relevant reason we sign treaties like the Geneva Convention is so that other signatory nations do unto us as we would do unto them. That means we can’t subject captured French soldiers to “Caddyshack II” and France can’t subject our boys to Jerry Lewis marathons.

OK, perhaps I’m making too much light of a serious thing — torture. But then again so is Biden. The Geneva Convention is a contract, like all treaties. And contracts obligate those who sign them to certain behavior.

Hence, POWs from signatory nations are entitled to all sorts of stuff, including dormitories replete with educational and entertainment facilities and generous canteens run by POWs who receive a share of the profits.

As my colleague Rich Lowry and others have pointed out, many of these provisions are the vestiges of World War II — when millions of conscripts were thrown into a faraway conflict and, hence, deserved not merely humane treatment, but, in Lowry’s words, “Hogan’s Heroes” treatment.

And that’s why White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez suggested in a 2002 memorandum that the Geneva Convention seemed “quaint” in the context of the war on terror.

But that’s all beside the point for the moment. Because whether or not it’s “quaint” for prison guards to behave like Sgt. Schultz (“I see nothink!”) or not, one thing is clear: The Geneva Convention does not require countries who haven’t signed it to do anything at all.

And guess what? Osama bin Laden has as much use for the Geneva Convention as he does for the new Lady Remington electric shaver.

So yeah, Biden is correct in all of his pious glory that the Geneva Convention protects military personnel like his son from being tortured — but it protects them from being tortured by other countries who have signed the Geneva Convention (By the way, Biden’s son is quite safe as a stateside military lawyer — a fact Biden revealed after the useful sound bite was over.)

If you sign a contract with your neighbor agreeing that neither of you will plant stinky ginkgo trees on your property, that contract is binding on you and your neighbor. It’s not binding for the guy who lives across the street.

Well, Osama bin Laden lives across the street. He lives outside our neighborhood, our community, our laws. He lives outside all of the rules of civilization, at war and peace. Every day, he violates the Geneva Convention before he has his second bowl of muesli. He blows up passenger trains and hijacks civilian aircraft. His henchmen don’t wear uniforms, and they don’t abide by any of the rules governing professional armies.

We’ve all seen countless WWII movies about how soldiers out of uniform can be shot as spies under the Geneva Convention. Well, all of al-Qaida’s soldiers are spies. And they most emphatically do not provide their prisoners with ping-pong tables and dormitories. They cut off their heads and put the pictures on the Internet and TV. The same goes for Osama’s allies and fellow travelers in Iraq.

The liberal punditocracy seems to think it’s an obvious fact that the Geneva Convention should apply to the war on terrorism, even though the plain text of the Geneva Convention applies as much to the war on terror as it does to the battle between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

Sen. Biden surely knows all of this. And so does John Ashcroft, whose son has actually served in Iraq. But why should the facts get in the way of some righteous bloviation in an election year?

Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other rules governing the behavior of American soldiers, including the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This doesn’t mean the military should be free to torture any belligerent who’s not party to the Geneva Convention, or that there aren’t real costs for American prestige to such behavior. And, no, this doesn’t mean that those responsible for the Abu Ghraib fiasco shouldn’t be punished.

But if you think the Geneva Convention is a wonderful thing, I don’t understand why you would want to weaken it by saying there’s no advantage to signing it. Al-Qaida and the Iraqi insurgents defy all the rules enshrined and symbolized by the Geneva Convention (and, often, the Koran) and yet administration critics piously demand that these thugs should be given all the benefits that come with being a signatory to it.

Well, if the barbarians get all of the benefits of the Geneva Convention without obeying any of its rules, then it becomes not merely quaint, not merely worthless, but a tool of those who wish to overthrow all it stands for.

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