Thursday, February 25, 2010

Musing over the morning paper

In lieu of a single topic compelling enough for a post, a couple of random thoughts:

Health Care: I’ve been intending to write more about the health care debate, but haven’t been able to find a concise enough way to get at what’s wrong with the Obama approach. Now Steven Chapman has gotten at one important aspect of it, in his column in today’s Chicago Tribune. Democrats would always rather regulate than get the incentives right, which would be cheaper and administratively simpler.

It’s easy to demonize the Republicans for stubbornly opposing the Obama bill, and it’s legitimate to ask why they didn’t come up with meaningful reform when they were in power for most of the last decade. But as annoying as the Republicans may be, the awkward fact remains that on this score they’re right: the two-thousand page monster health care bill the Democrats want to pass is bad legislation. Congress should start over, scaling back Democratic aspirations for radical restructuring, and go for achievable, significant reform based on a few key ideas, like de-linking health insurance from employment and allowing interstate insurance shopping. There is a whole range of achievable proposals for health care reform out there at places like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, putting the lie to the accusation that conservatives have no ideas and merely want to obstruct progress.

But don’t hold your breath. We’ll likely get some version of the monster, costs will continue to spiral, and we’ll have to have the debate all over again in a few years.

Terrorism: In light of my post of last November 21 and some comments on it, I’ve continued to think about the best way to treat terrorism suspects. The question is whether captured terrorists should be treated as criminal suspects, with the whole range of procedural protections afforded them, or as enemy combatants, with more leeway for interrogation and the possibility of detention without trial.

I have tended to side with the position they should be treated as criminals, since that is what I believe people planning mass murder are; my thinking has been that to call them enemy combatants is to confer on them a legitimacy they do not deserve.

But there’s a paradox here: we grant far greater protection to the rights of criminal suspects than we do to enemy combatants engaged in legitimate warfare. If we’re at war and I can get the jump on you, you’re toast, and rights don’t even enter into the debate. Warfare involves a total suspension of rights, starting with the right to life. This is a good reason for thinking twice about going to war, but once you’re in, it’s the only way to fight one.

So critics of the Obama administration may be right to insist that criminal law procedures are simply too cumbersome and inflexible to effectively confront the ruthlessness shown by our jihadist enemies. They certainly consider this a war, even if some of us would prefer not to. However distasteful we may find Guantánamo, we may need it, the way we needed prison camps for Germans and Japanese captured in World War Two.

But it’s still an apparent refutation of our stated commitment to the rule of law and a debating point for our enemies to hold captives without trial for years on end. The Germans and Japanese were repatriated at the end of hostilities. How will we know when the hostilities have ended in the War on Terror?

I don’t know. I don’t think there’s an easy answer. And it should be pointed out that this is one of the evillest aspects of terrorism—it undermines confidence in legitimacy and provokes ruthlessness in response. But we still have to take on the tough questions. We may need Guantánamo, but we also need to decide what the limits are, where the line of demarcation is between warfare and criminality, and we need to make the case plainly both to our allies and our enemies.

International law recognizes the concept of criminality within warfare, and it may be on this basis that we can justify our handling of terror suspects. We can call them war criminals. But our commitment to international law has been questioned on the basis of our reluctance to support the International Criminal Court at the Hague. Can we insist on our right to pursue terrorists as we see fit while at the same time insisting that we are exempt from international standards governing the use of force?

Sam Reaves

1 comment:

David A Kentner, DA Kentner, KevaD said...

Both of the topics are tough, tough issues to debate as they tend to be emotionalized without being rationalized.

I think you've nailed them both down - they can't be nailed down.
What is important is that we do not close our minds, especially about what to do with terrorists.

I believe anyone who declares and wages war on our country has placed themselves into the category of a prisoner of war if they are captured. "They" elected through their own free will to put their name on that list. Yes, there can be 'draftees,' but they still have the option of not going to war, though the consequences of that decision too can be dire.