We’re Not Ready To Simply Move On

Why are we giving Korans to the Al Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo?

The officers responsible for their care have let it be known that each murderous outlaw may have–in addition to a mat, a pair of flip-flops and two towels–access to a Koran. This, by way of proving our humanity to the world.

It would be tyrannical to require a prisoner to profess a faith in which he did not believe. But we are not obliged to supply them with catechisms of hatred. Were the prisoners at Nuremberg allowed to have copies of Mein Kampf , or the writings of Alfred Rosenberg? Were the Thugs, the members of the Hindu cult that attacked travelers, given idols of the relevant gods before the British strung them up? Over the centuries, the Koran has inspired philosophers, poets and millions upon millions of ordinary, decent people. But the beauties in our care seem to have found in it a different message. Let them draw upon their perverted memories of the text, and on prayer. Perhaps Allah will finally break through and tell them, “You losers, you’re bound for the big gas-fired grill in the hereafter.”

We may not have been sufficiently clear, when we began sorting out the Al Qaeda prisoners and shipping them to Cuba, that, although they were captured in a war, they are not regular prisoners of war. Prisoners of war are the agents of a hostile state. The Nazis, the Chinese Communists during the Korean War and the Taliban today all fall into this category. Civilization accords such people certain minimal rights when they become captives, not because all states are civilized–far from it–but because most states find it in their interest to play by such rules themselves, and because, when they don’t, they can be identified and punished. Even a wicked state, because it controls territory and a people, has the power to enlist soldiers in its ranks who may not be wicked themselves. Unless they are guilty of actual crimes, they deserve to be treated decently.

A group like Al Qaeda, however, is not a state. It has no address, no diplomats, no Web site. However rich or well-organized it is, it is a gang of outlaws. When outlaws compound their villainy by going to war, they deserve no more consideration than pirates who, in the bloody days of the Caribbean, were summarily hanged. If any of the prisoners at Guantanamo turn out to be useful to us, we may let them live out their natural span in captivity. The lives of the rest will not be nasty and brutish; we are not like Al Qaeda. But their lives will be poor, and no one should count on their being long.

Here and there, as in this flutter over the prison conditions in Guanatanomo, it is possible to imagine that the gears have slipped a bit, and that we are ratcheting back into the mind-set of Sept. 10. Journalists and politicians are especially sensitive to such shifts and possible shifts. Their job is to think, and think twice. They are like managers at a fight, huddling in their corners and wishing their heavyweights would keep up their lefts, or chess masters analyzing positions while the Russian champions du jour maneuver furiously over their pawns. The professional worriers are apt to worry: Are we back to normal? Is the war over (with fewer battlefield deaths than were suffered by the average New York City firehouse, and with most of the casualties caused by accidents, just like on the Long Island Expressway)? Osama bin Laden has not been found; is it time to start looking again for Chandra Levy?

I live in that bubble, too, and feel its mini high- and low-pressure systems. But I don’t think we’re back to normal. One reason is the ongoing pilgrimage to Ground Zero. It no longer flares and spits like the pit of hell; after four months, it’s more like a construction site than a canvas by Hieronymus Bosch. But the people from out of town come to look, and to be serious. New Yorkers could not help but see. But plenty of Americans who saw the disaster on television want to come and see something with their own eyes. They don’t seem to want to move on.

Neither, if I read him right, does President Bush. He did not want to be a war leader, or a warrior. He spent his war in the Texas National Guard, not the cannon’s mouth. He campaigned as a compassionate conservative. When the first airplane-bomb hit, he was reading a lesson to schoolchildren. But war found him. His first visit to Ground Zero, when he gave his first compelling public performance–the first of many–may have been his transformative experience. Like the tourists of destruction today, he saw it with his own eyes. Like them, he was shaken and sobered, and he became determined. His very normality and ordinariness ensures that he and the public are on the same wavelength. He will have to do a lot wrong before I will believe that he won’t do everything important right.

In the spirit of his new seriousness, he could do something a lot more right than he has so far done. The executives of Enron, and their enablers at Arthur Anderson, seem to be guilty of a variety of frauds; the law will take care of them. Unlike a host of other stupid or “aggressive” companies, from Chrysler to the banks who threw money at Mexico, Enron was not bailed out when it began sending distress calls to the Bush administration. So much is fine.

But the Presidency, we know, is a bully pulpit. We expect the President, in certain cases, to deplore or inspire; to throw his aura over causes not strictly before him as legal matters. We often expect it childishly; Presidents and their advisers often manipulate the aura cynically. But in a political system which fuses the head of state with the chief of government, the radiant energy of the Presidency is unavoidable.

How about using a little of it to fry the Enron scoundrels, to speed up the broiling process a bit? We are all in the terror war together, but the aptly named Mr. Lay was not in it together with his employees. Everything we are now supposed to feel, he did not. Americans will give executives all kinds of perks and advantages, including salaries and benefits larger than their own by factors of tens of thousands. They don’t like to be told to keep rowing when the officers are scrambling for the lifeboats.

President Bush should find some way to say so. That, too, is a burden of leadership. We’re Not Ready To Simply Move On