- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2011


In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” King Arthur fights and disarms the Black Knight. Arthur has just seen the Black Knight defeat another challenger and offers him a seat at Camelot, but the Black Knight attacks Arthur. In this iconic film scene, Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s arm. Unfazed, the Black Knight responds, ” ‘Tis but a scratch - I’ve had worse. Come on you pansy!” One by one, Arthur hacks off his other limbs, to which the Black Knight responds, “Just a flesh wound.” Deprived of his arms and legs, the Black Knight derides Arthur as a “coward” for leaving the scene of battle, threatening to “bite your legs off” if given the chance.

This outrageous scene is illustrative of a type of unlawful enemy combatant the U.S. military faces in stateless spaces. The Black Knight represented no legitimate political authority, nor did he wear the crest of any king or kingdom. He did not recognize Arthur, self-titled king of the Britons, and he lived beyond the control of effective government. Most important, the Black Knight would not quit: His ideational impetus kept him from accommodation, surrender, defeat or even acknowledgment of a setback. He was determined to keep killing. In many ways, he resembles Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Osama bin Laden and other unlawful enemy combatants vanquished on the field of battle in Afghanistan, Yemen or on the high seas.

What was Arthur to do with the Black Knight after defeating him? In our modern analogy, what is the United States to do with unlawful enemy combatants whom it has captured on the battlefield or in stateless spaces? This is not simply the problem of residual detainees living quite well at taxpayer expense at Guantanamo Bay: In the past few months, the United States has picked up other unlawful combatants such as the Lebanese Hezbollah agent Ali Musa Daqduq in Iraq (working on behalf of Iranian intelligence and implicated in the death of five U.S. servicemen) and the Somalian al Shabab operative Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame (picked up at sea).

The United States lacks a coherent policy for dealing with detainees. The reasons for this are many, from the roller-coaster litigation over military tribunals to the Abu Ghraib nightmare to candidate Barack Obama’s pledge to shutter Guantanamo Bay. However, a policy is desperately needed for dealing with terrorism’s Black Knights.

The consequences for not having a policy are dire. As members of the House Armed Services Committee recently wrote in a letter to President Obama, “the lack of a comprehensive military detention system will continue to have numerous detrimental results, including: incentivizing lethal operations over law of war detention; the loss of critical detainee-provided intelligence; forcing the United States to be wholly dependent on foreign governments to hold and provide access to detainees; and, as in Warsame’s case, bringing terrorists to the United States.”

The status of Guantanamo Bay and the detainee problem are not Republican versus Democrat issues. Actually, there is considerable consensus among voters. Most Americans recognize that we will have to hold Mr. Daqduq, Mr. Warsame and others for some time and want the United States to gain critical intelligence from them. Most people do not believe that terrorists and pirates are petty criminals to be tried in domestic courts, nor are they honorable opponents who should be accorded all the courtesies of lawful combat. Rather, Black Knights are in some third category: unlawful enemy combatants with basic human rights but not the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens whom they hope to vanquish.

There is also bipartisan consensus on many of these issues in Congress. It was a Democratic-controlled Congress that that renewed legislative authorization of commissions in the 2009 Military Commissions Act. Similarly, most Republicans and Democrats on the Hill know that their constituents do not want terrorists tried and incarcerated in their home state. Thus, for many of them, Guantanamo Bay - with its consistent, positive reporting by the Red Cross over many years now - is the location of choice for Black Knights.

We learned the hard way in Iraq that many of those whom we caught and released returned to the fight - first killing the civilians who had earlier turned them in to coalition forces and then attacking and killing U.S. troops. Indeed, it is telling that over the past two years, whenever the United States has killed a high-value target in Iraq, it has been able to flash a high-quality photo of the individual on television. We have those photos because they were mug shots that we took of the terrorists when we had them in custody before their release.

In sum, it is time for the White House to reconsider the future of Guantanamo and work with Congress on a comprehensive policy for handling such detainees. As part of a wider policy, Mr. Obama should prod the international community to do more on expanding the legal category of unlawful enemy combatants. So far, the world has largely dodged these issues, with the International Criminal Court in 1998 establishing a statute that deliberately omits any mention of terrorism, piracy, spies, mercenaries or other unlawful combatants.

In a globalized world with failing governments and stateless spaces, it is time to take responsibility for a comprehensive policy to detain those enemies who have pledged to do us harm.

Eric Patterson is associate director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

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