Monday, August 13, 2007

Jonah Goldberg on Enemy Combatants

UPDATE: Jonah has a fair response to these criticisms.

Jonah Goldberg is a good pundit. He’s smart, he can frame an argument. Jonah even seems to get along with liberals. Sometimes, in fact, he does that better than some liberals seem to be able to reciprocate.

All that said, not all of the arguments he floats are equal. In this column, Jonah berates “leading liberals and democrats” for the perceived sin of wanting to treat members of al Qaeda as criminals. The column is a reaction to an op ed in the New York Times penned by Wes Clark and UCLA law professor Kal Raustiala.

Clark and Raustiala make two arguments. The first is partly symbolic. Treating al Qaeda members as combatants “dignifies criminality by according terrorist killers the status of soldiers.” They argue that stateless terrorists don’t distinguish between civilians and combatants, and can’t be easily distinguished from civilians, themselves. The rules governing combatants aren’t really designed for this state of affairs, and this can lead to problems.

Jonah takes issue with this, mostly on what reads, to me, as the weakest, part of the argument. In his view designating al Qaeda as “enemy combatants” lowers their status rather than “dignifying” it. He also argues that treating them as criminals would entail launching “CSI: Kabul,” which is I think the strongest part of what he has to say.

What he ignores is the second argument put forth by Clark and Raustiala. The current approach “endangers our political traditions and our commitment to liberty.” They go on: “The government wields frightening power when it can designate who is, and who is not, subject to indefinite military detention.” This is the heart of the argument. Even if we grant that treating terrorists as combatants would be more effective than dealing with them as criminals, we need to remember that in a liberal democracy there are limits to what can be done. Efficiency, even in the face of a threat, can't be the highest priority. We need to remember who we are, or we'll lose what we have, inevitably.

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