Pundit vs. Pundit: “Enemy Combatant” status is a license to torture

Thoughtful political debate is what Peach Pundit is all about and as hard as it may be to comprehend, Front Page Posters here disagree from time to time. Given the events of last week and the ongoing debate about how to deal with terror suspects captured here in the United States, we thought it would be beneficial to have such a debate here on the front page. The political combatants today are Yours Truly and George Chidi. Below is George’s offering. To read the opposing viewpoint click here. – Buzz

The legal term “enemy combatant” is an artful turn of phrase, a bit of the emotionally sanitized Orwellian newspeak that belongs right up there with “convenience charges” when buying concert tickets and “collateral damage” to describe dead people we probably didn’t want to kill.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as enemy combatant is largely a thought experiment at this point. The Obama administration abandoned the use of the term in 2009, and for good reason: it’s a moral and legal quagmire without a whole lot of upside.

What benefit, exactly, do we get from calling Tsarnaev an enemy combatant? We can hold him incommunicado for quite a while on garden-variety terrorism charges – there’s no meaningful threat of him getting a secret message out to possible co-conspirators. Can we question him? Sure. We already are, and we’ve even temporarily invoked the public safety exception to avoid issuing a Miranda warning first. Apparently, he’s answering by writing; it seems that he got hit in the throat during the shootout and can’t speak.

Let us speak honestly then about what an enemy combatant is, in Tsarnaev’s case: an American citizen that some might prefer not to grant either the constitutional rights of a criminal at trial or those of a prisoner of war. It’s a way for us to evade our legal and moral obligations in the name of “security.”

And let us speak openly about what it some would like the term enemy combatant to mean: “Enhanced interrogation techniques,” which is more newspeak for torture. Once you strip the veneer of necessity from the arguments, the fervor for the enemy combatant label comes down to the hindbrain urge to punish the bastard for what he did, now. Make him sit in “stress positions,” which is even more newspeak for torture. Waterboard a man with a bullet in his throat. Because, you know, maybe he knows something. Never mind that he probably couldn’t cry out a name while being soaked.

We should probably be confident in being able to convict him on terror charges right now, given the evidence, but we may just detonate our own case if he’s declared an enemy combatant. We held dirty bombing plotter and American citizen Jose Padilla as an enemy combatant for three years. When the government finally charged him with a crime, the charges had nothing at all to do with the bomb plot, in order to evade questions of constitutional legality.

I grew up in Massachusetts. I’ve walked Boyleston Street more times than I can count. I’ve stood on the very spot the bomb exploded. I’ve thrown empty coffee cups into the trash can on the sidewalk there. And I can imagine the outcry there three years from now if Tsarnaev is charged with everything except the actual bombing because we decided it was more important to waterboard him than try him.

We want the country to be safe. But we should be unwilling to trade another gallon of real freedom for a thimbleful of illusory security. We have no reason to believe what we might get in intelligence value is what we will certainly sacrifice in national honor. It is the mark of brave, free men to be able to see this horror, bind our wounded, spit on the shrapnel and carry on without fear and with our constitution intact.


  1. Jawgadude says:

    Once it is relatively certain that someone has committed a mass terror attack on innocent Americans, then that person is fair game and should be tortured to within an inch of his life if that will give us info needed to capture other terrorists or prevent future attacks.

    • George Chidi says:

      Well, that’s … one … view. I guess.

      “Relatively” certain. That’s the legal standard now. Never mind “beyond a reasonable doubt,” or all of that “cruel or unusual punishment” stuff in the Constitution that defines us as a nation and a moral people.

      Nor the question about whether or not the intelligence would be actionable, or reliable, or if the net effect of thwarting a theoretical terror attack somehow offsets giving moral aid and succor to our enemies, helping at the margins to justify more attacks on Americans.

      And certainly not the principle — a provocative thought that isn’t voiced often enough — that living in a nation that, as a minimum moral standard does not torture is a value worth dying for to preserve.

      You’re being deliberately provocative as well, which is fine. In debate it can sometimes be valuable to define the extremes.

  2. mpierce says:

    “garden-variety terrorism charges”?

    garden-variety (American & Australian)
    very ordinary (always before noun) It’s just a garden-variety shopping mall, large but not special in any way.

    Interesting description.

  3. seenbetrdayz says:

    Though, I think you give Obama a bit too much credit for upholding civil rights (think NDAA, and that he is the first president to execute a US citizen via drone strike with little concern for rights of the accused), I actually agree with much you have said here.

    I seem to recall another infuriating event that happened in the city of Boston, in which the death toll was about the same, where the perpetrators were widely hated and the people wanted special exceptions and demanded blood for blood. Some idiot apologist stood up for them and fought as hard as he could to ensure that they’d get a trial. I mean, can you imagine the nerve of that guy? Traitor.

    And then the American people were dumb enough to elect John Adams to the presidency years later.

    The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.

    This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies.

    —John Adams, on the third anniversary of the massacre

  4. mpierce says:

    “Waterboard a man with a bullet in his throat. ”

    “We held dirty bombing plotter and American citizen Jose Padilla as an enemy combatant for three years.”

    In those three year, how many times do you think he was waterboarded?

  5. George Chidi says:

    I can’t say, mpierce. Which is, of course, part of the horrible problem. Padilla himself appears to have never claimed to be waterboarded, but claimed that he was subjected to other tortures. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” Padilla claimed to have been subjected to would be considered torture by the law of the land today … but perversely were not defined as such at the time of the torture in 2002 and 2003 because the state of the law was so nebulous.

    It is not unreasonable to assume that the government would exploit a similar legal loophole to torture the Boston bombing suspect, knowing that it would be another 10 years until a court decided that whatever they did to him might be torture as well.

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