Detention as a Model for American Values

Because I found myself in D.C. until late last night — for this event, which was nothing less than amazing — I lack time to write what I’ve wanted to for some time. Stay tuned!

In the alternative, don’t miss this post on Andrew Sullivan’s recently re-sited blog:

All war is unspeakable – but there is a civilized as well as a barbaric approach to it. In a civilized culture, you respect how the enemy, however we have to demonize them to kill them, is still human. And so there are limits to what will be done to them if they come into our custody. And there are laws of war to manage this. And then there are those moments, like those German POWs becoming American, when a gesture takes on a grander scale and actually heals.

Why did we treat Nazi prisoners then better than we treat Muslim prisoners now? The applicability of the Geneva Convention in World War II was crystal-clear, of course, while in the War on Terror, it’s certainly not. But I reject the notion that Americans believe our morality should ever be controlled by our minimum obligations. Is it a race issue — orientalism writ large? — or are we actually crueler now than we were then? Whatever the cause, to paraphrase Augustus, whatever our military power may be, we should always exceed all others in moral authority.


  1. Sometimes I think “rules of war” is a hideous oxymoron. Other times I acknowledge the practical necessity if the concept.

    Mostly, I think it’s important to let good guys keep other good guys in check, particularly in a “war” that could rightly be called police action.

  2. I’m not sure if your ‘why did we do that’ question was rhetorical but I’ll answer it anyway. We treated them nicer because A) They were fighting for a nation, not a terrorist group and/or a religion. B) Many Americans were only one or two generations removed from Germany themselves. As an example, my dad grew up in an area of Louisville that is still called Germantown because it was home to a lot of German immigrants in the first half of the 20th century. Among those immigrants were my great-grandparents who barely spoke English and were still alive when WWII started. Imagine their children fighting for the Allies. So… our attitudes towards German POWs were certainly colored by those circumstances.

    On the other hand you have a minimal Muslim population in the US that due to their cultural ways seem particularly foreign and also closed off from the rest of us. On top of that they are fighting for a religion that most Americans don’t understand much and also warping that religion for their own perverse goals.

    So attitudes are different. It still doesn’t make indefinite detention right, but it IS the law of the land at the moment.

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