Jonah Goldberg

"There's a reason why we sign these treaties: to protect my son in the military," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., hissed at the attorney general through his enormous teeth. "That's why we have these treaties, so when Americans are captured they are not tortured. That's the reason in case anybody forgets it."

Well . . . sorta.

The relevant reason we sign treaties like the Geneva Convention is so that other signatory nations do unto us as we would do unto them. That means we can't subject captured French soldiers to "Caddyshack II" and France can't subject our boys to Jerry Lewis marathons.

OK, perhaps I'm making too much light of a serious thing - torture. But then again so is Biden. The Geneva Convention is a contract, like all treaties. And contracts obligate those who sign them to certain behavior.

Hence, POWs from signatory nations are entitled to all sorts of stuff, including dormitories replete with educational and entertainment facilities and generous canteens run by POWs who receive a share of the profits.

As my colleague Rich Lowry and others have pointed out, many of these provisions are the vestiges of World War II - when millions of conscripts were thrown into a faraway conflict and, hence, deserved not merely humane treatment, but, in Lowry's words, "Hogan's Heroes" treatment.

And that's why White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez suggested in a 2002 memorandum that the Geneva Convention seemed "quaint" in the context of the war on terror.

But that's all beside the point for the moment. Because whether or not it's "quaint" for prison guards to behave like Sgt. Schultz ("I see nothink!") or not, one thing is clear: The Geneva Convention does not require countries who haven't signed it to do anything at all.

And guess what? Osama bin Laden has as much use for the Geneva Convention as he does for the new Lady Remington electric shaver.

So yeah, Biden is correct in all of his pious glory that the Geneva Convention protects military personnel like his son from being tortured - but it protects them from being tortured by other countries who have signed the Geneva Convention (By the way, Biden's son is quite safe as a stateside military lawyer - a fact Biden revealed after the useful sound bite was over.)

If you sign a contract with your neighbor agreeing that neither of you will plant stinky ginkgo trees on your property, that contract is binding on you and your neighbor. It's not binding for the guy who lives across the street.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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