“Combatants”: Detained But Untried

                                                             by Jack L. B. Gohn

             “We are at war against al Quaeda,” said President Obama on January 7, giving lip service, and not for the first time, to a notion the Framers would have found absurd: that an undeclared conflict with a stateless group boasting no army and only a few thousand adherents was a war.  No doubt he signed on to this misuse of the term “war” because to fail to do so would have left him politically exposed to attacks from the right.  But most likely he also misused the term because, increasingly, “war” looks like the only legal justification for potentially lifelong detention of around 50 of the Guantanamo detainees deemed especially dangerous, while denying them a court trial or even a military commission hearing.

             The trouble is, this justification may not justify enough and, at the same time, much too much.

            We have most of the Bush administration memos now; we know what theories the Bush lawyers tried to rely upon for open-ended detention before the Supreme Court intervened.  We don’t know much about the Obama administration’s justifications.  In May, Obama said he’d ask for authorizing legislation.  After backpedaling from that statement in subsequent months, the Justice Department issued a September statement, apparently unposted on the Department website, reportedly relying on these detainees’ status as combatants. No one returned my call to Justice seeking a spokesman on this.[1]  So we’re guessing here.                                                                             

            However, we are safe in assuming that, just like the Bush theorists, Obama’s team reasons that combatants captured in a war can be detained for the duration.  Since the detainees are accused of no crime (attacking the U.S. by means that accord with the laws of war is lawful for combatants), they do not belong in either the civilian or the military justice system.  But it still accords with the laws of war to hold them.

            There are some problems with this neat formulation, however, when applied in a situation that bears almost none of the traditional hallmarks of war. 

            Because there will be no surrenders, peace treaties or armistices, we know already that we shall lack the all the signal events that ordinarily enable us to distinguish when a war comes to an end.  (Under the law of war, once a war ends combatants must be promptly repatriated.)[2]  And if, as seems likely, this “war” will last a lifetime, then there must be some recognition of the right of the individual combatant detainee unilaterally to cease being a combatant.  Otherwise we are likely to be detaining large numbers of people for a status that they once occupied but in no meaningful way continue to do.

            The Supreme Court held in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004) that detainees must have a neutral forum before which to challenge the government’s original classification of them as combatants.  It would seem that the same should be done for those who claim not to be combatants any longer.  And indeed, standing orders of the Department of Defense dating to 2006 apparently call for such cases to be “reviewed periodically by a competent authority.”[3]   So, if we insist on buying into the war rationale, we need a way of making periodic individualized determinations about detainees’ current statuses.

             The way we used to make those individualized and periodic determinations was through Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which, however, virtually never found anyone not to have been or to have ceased to be a combatant.  This system was obviously dysfunctional.  The Supreme Court ended it in 2008 with Boumediene v. Bush, but if there is a replacement system, it has not yet been well publicized.

             So we have killed off the one process we had going to make this necessary determination, and now the detainees are even worse off.  When we restart it, and we’ll have to, it will be a daunting task.

             This is not the kind of decision we as a nation have much experience even attempting.  We do not ordinarily restrict anyone’s liberty on account of things he or she might do in future.  The two closest analogues I can think of are our handling of the criminally insane, and our parole and probation systems.  Neither is much help, because both are premised on the assumption that there is something wrong with the person under scrutiny.  The wrong thing, insanity or criminality, is justly regarded as being a perceptible defect in the wholeness or integrity of the personality.  And the reality is, such defects often are quite perceptible.

             Combatancy is not a defect: three notable combatants in U.S. history bore the names George Washington. Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower.  The combatancy problem is most likely not that the detainees weren’t combatants, it’s that they weren’t our combatants.

             One can of course argue that terrorism is an illegitimate kind of warfare, and that anyone who was part of a terrorist army by definition did have something wrong with him, but that is tantamount to saying that terrorism is war crime by definition.  If we say that, then we can and should prosecute those we believe practiced it.  If we insist on detaining people just as combatants, however, we are also, like it or not, detaining them for exercising their rights under the laws of war. 

             So: Imprison a man for eight years and say whether he’s still a combatant.  How do you do it?  There’s no defect you can hunt for, just allegiances and a willingness to fight for them.  And even at our worst moments after 9/11, we as a nation never signed on to anti-Muslim bigotry.  Being Muslim is still neither a crime nor of itself a badge of combatancy.  In the end, you’re asking about a detainee’s beliefs on a level more specific than mere religion. 

             The records that were released by the old CSRTs were full of data about the past – about a detainee’s acts of war, his training, his connections before capture.  As the detention grows ever longer – and in a few more years, some of the detainees will have spent half their lives behind bars – the evidence must concern who the detainees have become now. If a man prevented from fighting denies the intent to fight, how can we know otherwise?  Without armies, without uniforms, without the possibility of engaging in acts of war while in captivity, the detainee’s heart is where the combatancy lies, or does not, and so the detainees’ hearts must be the focus of the inquiry.  It has to be a matter of beliefs a man holds.  That’s hard to prove.

             And anyway, are we really ready to hold people without trial forever merely because of their beliefs?  What other beliefs might we decide allowed us to imprison without trial?  Do we want our presidents empowered to imprison people simply for their beliefs?

            That is why the war theory is a mistake.  Terrorism is crime, and if we treat it as such, we know exactly what we are doing. We know how to deal with the potential future dangerousness of criminals, be they garden variety or war criminals.  Of course, with all the torture-tainted evidence required to achieve convictions, it wouldn’t be easy.  But unlike the war paradigm, it at least wouldn’t be absurd.


[1].         A few days after my deadline for this piece, anonymous administration spokespersons leaked to the Washington Post and to the New York Times the administration’s plans, roughly as described here, and, as predicted, made vague references to POW status for the now indefinitely detained.

[2].         Third Geneva Convention, Art. 118.

[3].         That language applies to “unlawful noncombatants” only – a category the Supreme Court may have rejected, but it appears to embrace all of the men we are speaking of here.


                                                      Copyright © Jack L. B. Gohn

One Comment

  1. Isaac Showell says:

    I am ambivalent about what to do with the Guantanamo detainees. We have learned over the past years that some of those held were mistakenly imprisoned. However, that is not the issue addressed by your column. Over the years war has become a ubiquitous metaphor that has caused diminution of its true meaning. War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Terrorism. It becomes a catch phrase without definition or meaning. So what to do with these P.O.(un)W? Perhaps they should be on the FBI most wanted list as were Weather Underground bombers back in those days when “terror” came from within and justified itself as a War on the Establishment. Treat criminals as criminals. Use a bomb, go to jail.

    Determining combatant versus criminal is a bit too philosophically esoteric for me. I want people who do bad acts kept where they cannot do them to me and by extension my family, friends, community, State, nation. What dwells in hearts and minds is elusive. When did the 28 year old who once was a 19 year old willing to wear an exploding vest into a crowded market transform into a man of peace? Is it ever knowable except by observing his actions? If kept indefinitely as a detainee, he cannot demonstrate his redemption. If released but unchanged, how many will die? Does it all just come down to fear or power? Maricopa County has become the world and the U.S. become Sheriff Joe.