By Kenneth Roth, executive director
September 11, 2006
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were not only a tragedy for the victims and their families. They were also a searing reminder that radical groups today can commit acts of enormous violence and impact. The attacks showed with unmistakable clarity the extent to which certain extremist Islamist groups, far from the mainstream yet with global ambitions, have internalized the idea that the ends justify the means, that any civilian living in a state perceived as hostile is a legitimate target.
Sadly, the U.S. government never took that insight to heart. As the target of the attacks five years ago, no government played a more important role in shaping the global response to terrorism. Yet Washington’s response instead reinforced the dangerous view that laudable ends can justify brutal means.
Following the terrorist attacks, many Americans understandably wanted their government to do anything possible that might protect them from terrorism. The Bush administration exploited that fear to push through various measures with scant regard to international human rights standards. Systematic prisoner abuse, widespread detention without trial, and proposed kangaroo courts were the result. Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and secret CIA prisons became the unfortunate symbols of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Even within the United States, the rights of many Muslim men were compromised through the misuse of laws such as those on detaining immigrants and “material witnesses.” Governments around the world, in turn, exploited the U.S. government’s example to launch or defend repression of their own.
These abuses are wrong as a matter of fundamental rights. Though done in the name of protection from terrorism, they are also counterproductive. Fighting terrorism effectively requires not just stopping existing terrorists but also preventing the generation of new ones. By all accounts, U.S. abuses in the name of fighting terrorism have been a boon to terrorist recruiters. The loss of the moral high ground has made it harder to dissuade angry young men from resorting to the deliberate killing of civilians.
Many of the abuses also reflect a counterterrorism strategy that is too narrow. Most experts insist that, in comparison with other law enforcement methods such as surveillance or searches, information garnered from interrogation plays a relatively small role in cracking secretive criminal conspiracies. The most important source of all is tips from members of the general public—ordinary citizens, often from the same community as a would-be terrorist, who might report suspicious activity next door or the approach of a terrorist recruiter. Abusive interrogation can discourage such cooperation because many potential sources of information want nothing to do with “dirty war” tactics that may be used against their neighbors or even themselves. Cooperation from other governments can be similarly undermined.
For these practical reasons, and because Americans and people around the world are morally outraged by U.S. government tactics, Washington has begun to change its approach. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s attempts to exclude Guantánamo from U.S. legal protections or to prosecute alleged terrorists before military commissions that violate the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. Congress rejected a Bush administration claim that the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment does not protect non-Americans held by U.S. forces outside the United States. These developments, coupled with revelations of the CIA’s secret detention centers and growing public pressure, led President Bush to close those secret prisons, at least for the moment. Uniformed members of the U.S. military, successfully resisting pressure from their civilian superiors, have reaffirmed rules against the abusive techniques that those superiors had authorized.
Yet major battles remain:
- The Bush administration still subscribes to the view that it is engaged in a “global” war, so suspects can be detained as “enemy combatants” anywhere in the world, including the United States, and held without charge or trial until the end of the “war against terrorism,” which may never come. That theory threatens the basic rights of us all.
- Even though it has now been reaffirmed that U.S. law clearly outlaws all forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the administration is trying to decriminalize such mistreatment to protect anyone who has authorized or deployed it in the last five years.
- The administration still claims the right to send suspects to countries that regularly torture, hiding behind the fig leaf that a government’s mere diplomatic promise to treat suspects well, with little more, is credible even when that government regularly flouts major multilateral treaties against torture.
- The administration is still pressing for trials before military commissions where suspects could be convicted and even executed on the basis of evidence they never see, witnesses they never confront, and testimony that has been forcibly extracted.
- The administration has never repudiated the view that the president as commander-in-chief can ignore or even violate laws that protect fundamental rights.
The arguments advanced to defend these ongoing abuses are weak. No one denies that terrorist incidents should be prevented as well as punished, but existing criminal laws allow the government to stop terrorist plans before they are carried out. No one denies that military force must sometimes be used against terrorist groups, but that does not justify pretending that the entire world is a battlefield where criminal justice rights can be suspended. No one denies that protecting intelligence sources and methods is important, but existing U.S. courts, both civilian and military, have done that well for decades, even in the face of raging wars and serious security threats.
The important goal of curbing terrorism does not justify a response without limits. So for reasons of pragmatism as well as principle, the best way to mark the fifth anniversary of September 11 would be with a rejection of the logic of terrorism and a renewed commitment to human rights. The rights of people matter. The ends do not justify any means. Respecting human rights—and encouraging other governments to do the same—is not only the right way to curb terrorism but also the most effective.