William F. Buckley

Legal questions arose. Gen. Michael Hayden of the CIA has said that clarifications have to be made, since outrages to human dignity can be adduced by imaginative, and even not really imaginative, detainees -- certainly Mr. Sulaiman could after awhile persuasively maintain that life in a cell in Guantanamo is an outrage against personal dignity.

Another matter, on which Mr. Bush is absolutely decisive, has to do with the auspices of Common Article 3. The Geneva Convention that came up with it was talking about treatment of organized combatants, and of course terrorists are militantly non-military. The point here is that Congress has the authority to modify its endorsement of the Geneva protocol by acting on the vagueness not only of the prohibition, but also of the category -- "combatants seized in wartime" -- being dealt with.

It was a maudlin mistake of Gen. Powell to take these questions and run them together under the rubric of morality. The eternal question, in international engagements but also in national and even local engagements, is how to balance competing claims: the claim to personal sovereignty and the claim to security for the community. Before airplanes existed, one didn't need expedited detentions based on suspicious activity.

As Congress closes in on the request of the commander in chief, elected legislators will need to review these questions. They should not be asked to define what exactly they condone, in the way of alternative interrogation practices. But they should not be dumbfounded into inactivity by general appeals to the Ten Commandments.


William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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