“The United States and many other countries are waging a war against terrorism.”

This is the battle cry announced today to the media by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just before leaving on a diplomatic salvage salvo to Europe. If indeed we are to view recent attacks against U.S. and Western interests worldwide as a “war,” then it is an ongoing war with no real beginning and no predictable end. The Gospels remind us that there will be wars and rumors of wars, but another constant in human history has been the human potential for atrocities. Such potential is today labeled as “terrorism” when it flaunts regard for human rights and the Geneva Convention wisdom of how to wage war cleanly. But Rice is not going to Germany and France to sell war bonds; she has to explain why the United States has substituted the basic American value of civil liberty with an eye-for-an-eye counter-terrorism that comes dangerously close to combating terrorism with yet another form of terrorism.

Today’s terrorists, to a historian not intent on defending governmental policy, are no different than the Sea Peoples who overran civilized Egypt or Attilla’s barbaric Huns who were unwilling to read the corpus juris of Roman legates. But Secretary Rice argues otherwise: “The captured terrorists of the 21st century do not fit easily into traditional systems of criminal or military justice, which were designed for different needs.” When did captured terrorists, that is individuals suspected on not playing by the rules, ever fit easily into conventional rules promoted to stop such abuses of justice? Were Nazi collaborators really that different than today’s young suicide bombers? The only thing new, or at least novel, in the Bush administration’s “no alibi left behind” defense of foreign policy mistakes, is that we can assume anyone we suspect of being a terrorist is by legal definition a dangerous individual not entitled to defense.

Take rendition, for example. According to Secretary Rice, “Rendition is a vital tool in combating transnational terrorism. Its use is not unique to the United States, or to the current administration.” This is pure Machiavellian, but absent even a hint of Jeffersonian notions of the dignity necessarily built into the ideal of civil liberty. Our government can secretly “rend,” for lack of a better verb, an individual a branch of it suspects of having useful information to a place where the rules do not apply or cannot be seen or will be ignored to please us. It does not matter if we may be sending an individual who did nothing criminally wrong or is a case of mistaken identity to known torture. It is okay because we need that valuable information that we assume can only be extracted by physical and mental abuse. We would not do that to our own citizens, but these Afghans and Pakistanis and Yemenis are clearly not as human as our own citizens. And it is alright for this Republican administration to do so, because Democrats did it as well. Imagine a murderer standing up in court and saying murder is not criminal since others have done and got away with it or that the murder was necessary to get something valuable.

“Renditions take terrorists out of action, and save lives,” claims the Secretary. “One of history’s most infamous terrorists, best known as “Carlos the Jackal,” had participated in murders in Europe and the Middle East. He was finally captured in Sudan in 1994. A rendition by the French government brought him to justice in France, where he is now imprisoned. Indeed, the European Commission of Human Rights rejected Carlos’ claim that his rendition from Sudan was unlawful.” Interesting example, but in fact it is the opposite of what the United States is alleged to have been doing. Sudan is hardly a haven for humane treatment of suspected criminals. I do not know how the French treated Carlos when he arrived on their soil, but I suspect he was not subjected to the kind of torture Saddam Hussein routinely meted out in Abu Ghurayb or Rios Montt justified for indigenous Guatemalans. Carlos is in prison today because the French have an effective and humane system of justice by our standards. But we apparently sent suspected terrorists away from a venue where they would have a fair hearing to one in which there would be no qualms about use of torture. Morally, we just went the wrong way on a one-way street.

We are asked to believe that rendition is never done for the purpose of torture. “The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured.” For an administration with a President who thinks he talks with God (or vice versa), this is beyond belief. We have already rendered prisoners from Guantanamo to Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia. In the latter case we have a modern nation state which still chops off heads and hands. Perhaps Secretary Rice has not yet had a chance to read what her own State Department says about the treatment of prisoners in these two countries. Or is she suspending belief in our official intelligence by claiming that those individuals sent to Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia would not be tortured?

Daniel Martin Varisco