Rules of Engagement: 9/11 is Over

7 October, 2007

Our country tortures. It conducts raids on hospitals. It flies false flags. It makes "wanted dead or alive" pronouncements. It posts rewards. It attempts (and sometimes carries out) assassinations. International law and military law do not put endless restraints on national actors. The sections on perfidy and treachery in the air force, army, and navy handbooks are in each case extremely brief — they put only three rules in front of us…We have violated, or have come perilously close to violating, each of them.

In her essay, Rules of Engagement (collected in this year's volume of the Best American Essays), Harvard Professor Elaine Scarry manages an amazing feat.
By carefully examining the international accords that govern conduct during wartime and the specific ways in which America's prosecution of the War on Terror has violated those accords, Scarry manages to turn the shapeless malaise arising from the inchoate belief that America's agents have committed some nameless evil in our name into concrete knowledge of both the abuses themselves and — more importantly — the legal and ethical framework that makes them evil.

The insidious power of these violations stems from the fact that their perpetrators don't consider them violations at all. To their minds, the actions Scarry outlines are perfectly righteous having been conducted under a new set of rules that govern a post-9/11 world that is somehow categorically different from that which proceeded it. The facts of this new world, they imagine, somehow negate the great political and ethical wisdom embodied in the monuments of international law that oversaw the earlier one, chiefly the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners and the Hague Convention on the use of weapons.

Scarry systematically undercuts any reason for maintaining this belief, establishing without question the continued relevance of such root ethical principles as the respect for the hors de combat status that protects prisoners and medics. This has the immeasurable benefit of restoring the rational, coherent, and convincing bases of civilization that these abuses had so muddied and — in the process — revealing them not as new rules for a new world, as their proponents claim, but as the crimes they are.

As Thomas Friedman put it in his most recent column, 9/11 Is Over:

I will not vote for any candidate running on 9/11…I will not vote for any candidate who is not committed to dismantling Guantanamo Bay and replacing it with a free field hospital for poor Cubans. Guantanamo Bay is the anti-Statue of Liberty.

Scarry and Friedman both point out just how much work we have to do to bring America back into its proper place within the community of civilized nations. That work cannot begin until we let go of the 9/11 exceptionalism that led us so far afield in the first place.

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