William F. Buckley

The categorical opponents of the detainee bill should spend an unhappy hour reading the new book by Mary Habeck. She is a scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and her book, "Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror," is published by Yale University Press. The book undertakes to tell the reader things about the jihadist offensive that we should know about, properly concern ourselves with, and take into account when weighing legislative initiatives.

The scene in Washington, in a word, was as follows. The president, who is commander in chief of our armed forces and, as such, principal agent of the national security, took to Congress an impasse. It had been created by the Supreme Court. Exercising, quite properly, its authority to opine on deviations from past constitutional practice having to do with human rights, the court ruled that we could not legitimately proceed, as we have been doing in Guantanamo, to detain foreigners for interrogation and other purposes without reference to such constitutional narrative as is implicit under habeas corpus. That doctrine specifies that the American citizen is the master of his own movements -- putting the burden of respecting that sovereignty on the government.

However, the protection of habeas corpus does not necessarily extend to those who are not U.S. citizens, which is what the current controversy is about. The Geneva Conventions, so often adduced in the congressional debate of the last few weeks, are designed to shed light on the standing of foreigners who find themselves behind bars set up by the U.S. military. The conventions cited are inadequate to current purposes, because those conventions sought to illuminate our authority over persons who had served or were serving in armies against which the United States contended in war.

The problem crystallized soon after Sept. 11, namely what exactly do we call people who are suspected of participating in activity mortal to U.S. interests, but who do not wear any badge of allegiance to any formal foreign body? President Bush took what can perhaps be criticized as the easiest way out: He simply assumed authority over them and their movements.

Moreover, he went further than merely detaining them. Many were suspected of being privy to organized activity against us, of the kind that mention of Sept. 11 calls vividly to mind. Some of these suspects have been handled, we are led to believe, in ways that would not befit, nor be tolerated in, the handling of orthodox prisoners.

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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