Deborah Orr: Is this what we call winning the war?

'Europe, with its bleeding heart whinges about international law, is being seen in America as pathetically liberal'
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Before the war on terrorism had started, plenty of people were mustering, asking for it to stop. Before the Taliban had been deposed, people were still shouting, still waving placards. Before Osama bin Laden had dropped off the radar, campaigners were still willing to take to the streets. Now though, just when the exhortation to Stop The War seems to be most persuasive and appropriate, no one is campaigning much any more.

Isn't this a little strange?

While the Taliban were still in power, refusing to hand over Mr bin Laden, fostering al-Qa'ida, oppressing and starving millions, civilian casualties of the coalition bombing were widely reported, and much discussed. Now the Taliban are routed, Mr bin Laden is considered to have fled the country and an interim government is in place, charged with getting a democratic Afghanistan on its feet, and snappily. Yet, the bombs are still dropping and Afghans are still dying.

And the rights and wrongs of the continuing war itself are no longer greatly discussed. Instead the entire focus of those concerned with human rights is trained on the possible rough treatment of the prisoners the US is presently exporting to Cuba. There have been complaints about everything from their lowly status as mere "unlawful combatants" to the possibility that hearsay evidence might be allowed in the military tribunals.

Across the Atlantic, once more, such petty hair-splitting is being greeted with disbelief. America is again outraged by the concern that the world, especially Europe, is showing for these captured terrorists who have been identified, after intensive interrogation by the CIA, as senior figures in al-Qa'ida or the Taliban.

And, indeed, there is mileage in the idea that these questions are sometimes prompted by what can seem like excessive identification with the miscreants rather than their victims.

There is much worry, for example, that some prisoners may have had their beards removed, against their religious beliefs. Culturally insensitive as one could argue that to be, the truth is that it's an unsubstantiated rumour, floating around in a situation characterised by more concrete procedural concerns. Making such a big deal of it at this stage could just as easily be seen as culturally insensitive to Americans, for whom facial hair is simply facial hair, a free choice like so many others in life.

Further, the fuss being made about the human rights of the al-Qa'ida suspects can appear to be so much greater than that afforded not just to Afghan civilians, but to poor wretches around the world all the time. It must almost seem, Stateside, that human rights activists get more steamed up about the treatment of the guilty than that of the innocent. The cage-cells that contravene so many human rights in Guantanamo Bay, for example, were initially built to house Haitian and Cuban boat people. If the world didn't win the argument against the cages then, why should it be so much more important to do so now?

As for some of the dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin-type debate, it really can seem like winning the argument is more important than the violation of humans. Take the comment by Neil Durkin, of Amnesty International: "There are quite low levels of the definition of torture. Hooding could be a breach of it."

This really must just seem to the Americans like any technicality will be held against them.

These sorts of arguments are too devilishly wrapped up in detail anyway, to concern the US majority. That attitude is summed up in the President's own statement regarding the treatment of prisoners. He said: "Whatever the procedures are for military tribunals, our system will be a lot more fair than the system of bin Laden and the Taliban. The prisoners that we capture will be given a heck of a lot better chance in court than those citizens of ours who were in the World Trade Centre or the Pentagon were given by Mr bin Laden."

And of course this is true. But that doesn't stop the present situation from being murkily confusing and contradictory. A couple of weeks ago, the official line was that John Walker Lindh, the Californian 20-year-old who was captured fighting with the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif, was not entitled to access to a lawyer because he was a prisoner of war.

Now, the prisoners in Cuba, including three Britons, are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention because they are not considered prisoners of war.

Clearly the US is making quite a lot up as it goes along, the attitude being that anything goes, since al-Qa'ida is so despicable that anything done in the name of quashing it must be right. This is, once again, an interesting and paradoxical position for the US to take. One must accept that what the US wants to do is Right and that any dissenting voice is Wrong. This is, believe many Americans, the fundamental way in which the world changed after the events of 11 September.

To this nation under fire, Right and Wrong is identified with conservative values, the kind of values which compelled America in its uncompromising response to the atrocities. Moral relativism is what has been displayed by the peaceniks, the enemies of America, the liberals, the lefties, who more than even the Taliban have become the people who must be beaten.

The analysis, US conservatives argue, is borne out by the case of John Walker Lindh himself. America's Taliban member – expected to face trial in the US – is the product of an upbringing so cringeingly liberal that even after his capture his father announced: "We want to give him a big hug and then a little kick in the butt for not telling us what he was up to."

Now this liberal upbringing, with its lack of moral guidance, and its failure to punish wrongdoing, is being held up as some kind of blueprint for breeding a fundamentalist, or at the very least apologists for fundamentalists such as anti-war types.

Europe, with its bleeding-heart whingeing about international law and cavils about capital punishment, is being seen as pathetically liberal. Europe, in America's eyes, wants to give all of the "battlefield detainees" a big hug and a little kick in the butt.

But what's been odd all the way about this war that takes no prisoners of war is that, in general, its prosecutors have been the ones employing moral relativism, not its opponents. Every action has to be judged not on its own moral merits, but with reference to the actions of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. Even now, the holding up of Mr bin Laden as some kind of benchmark against which President Bush invites the world to judge his treatment of prisoners, is deeply unsettling.

How can all behaviour that is superior to Mr bin Laden's suddenly be imbued with rectitude? It makes no sense for America to judge its actions, and invite them to be judged, in comparison to those of an evil and outrageous enemy.

Instead, it does make sense for a world which is supposed to be engaged in a war against terrorism, rather than wiping out a single criminal gang, to be agreed about how the prisoners of that war should be treated and what kind of status they should be accorded. What has to be thrashed out here is what is Right and what is Wrong. Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker are charged with having failed to do that with their son. It's quite an irony that the US wants to dodge that issue too.

Treatment of prisoners of war, battlefield detainees, unlawful combatants, whatever it is they're called, is about setting a moral benchmark, agreeing to a standard of humanity that marks those who fall below it as immoral. And "a lot more fair than the system of bin Laden and the Taliban" just isn't good enough.