There's an interesting article in US News and World Report entitled Cracking an Insurgent Cell. The story begins with a hit team killing an Iraqi election worker. But the hit team doesn't get very far. A watchful Iraqi sniper wounds one of the perps. The pursuit overtakes the getaway car. Two perps, including the wounded member of the hit team are arrested. It's a good start but now the dilemmas begin.
Fox tells al-Jabouri he will return with his interrogation team. Before leaving, however, he asks if Nashwan has been roughed up by his Iraqi interrogators. "A little," says al-Jabouri. The answer will severely complicate the rest of Fox's week. ... The arguments in the 1-17 battalion also show how the American mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison--and fear of another scandal--continue to loom over everything the military does, ... the Americans must consider whether there is really enough evidence to hold the detainees. If the evidence doesn't meet American standards, military lawyers will release the detainees--angering the Iraqi forces who originally captured them ... The Iraqi Army is not bound by the three-day limit the Americans have imposed on themselves. Majeed, Fox believes, will be able to get the detainees to talk about IED s, weapons, and other cell members. There's just one catch, though. The Iraqi Army has a reputation for beating prisoners. And Fox knows that if the detainees are hurt, he'll be held accountable.
... As they are placed in the back, one of the American soldiers whispers to the detainees in English: "We are taking you to the peshmerga." ... Actually, Majeed's battalion, a former Iraqi National Guard unit, is mostly Sunni Arab, not Kurdish. But as they are ushered off the Stryker and toward Majeed's office, Nashwan and Adel don't know that. As far as they can tell, they're at a Kurdish base. Perhaps as a result, a transformation has come over Adel. The defiant young man who said he wanted to kill the Americans is now sobbing uncontrollably. ... "I thought we were staying with the Americans," Adel says.
The story is told from two points of view. The first from an American and an Iraqi officer who think the spirit of the rules, rather than the rules themselves should be the guiding principle behind operations. This American officer is planning to retire in 2007. The second is from another US officer who believes that rules, if they are to mean anything, must be strictly followed.
Triscari is pleased with the results of the operation but remains troubled by the possibility that Majeed used force to get Nashwan and Abu Mahmoud to talk. Triscari is an accomplished officer. He has written a book about transforming Army brigades and will most likely be offered command of a new battalion when he returns stateside. He has dark hair and eyes and a lean, unlined face. The United States, Triscari says, cannot fudge the rules to have a detainee handed over to the Iraqi Army, especially if it is concerned that the suspects may be abused. "If we see someone tortured," he says, "we have an obligation to say, 'Do not do that.' We do not wink at torture." To Triscari, there are clear lines that the American Army must not cross. The rules ensure that the Americans stay within bounds.
Readers of Cracking an Insurgent Cell will find support for whichever of two contradictory theses they prefer. It can be offered as an example that insurgent cells can be cracked without "torture" -- at least not the nail-pulling kind, though lawyers may have something to say about threatening detainees with transfer out of American custody -- or an example of how killers were captured despite the rules. It doesn't end the debate, just unambiguously highlights that lives are stake on both sides of the argument. The broken insurgent cell had been engaged in killing Iraqis and planting IEDs. Letting them escape meant that someone was actually going to die. On the other side is Triscari's argument: the imperative of keeping the physically unstoppable US military, an organization so powerful that it is constrained only by its own command and control systems, within bounds.
But whether in the world of Fox or Triscari we are a long way from the cold universe of human rights abstractions. That is wonderfully characterized in an article by human rights advocate Conor Gearty who argued that humanitarian law itself, not any sentimental claptrap about saving the innocent and punishing the guilty, is the absolute standard.
The moment the human rights discourse moves in this way into the realm of good and evil is the moment when it has fatally compromised its integrity. For once these grand terms are deployed in the discussion, all bets are off as far as equality of esteem is concerned. If we are good and they are bad, then of course equality of esteem as between all of us is ludicrous. Why esteem the evildoer in the same way as he or she who does good? ... International humanitarian and human rights law represents the apogee of this civilizing trend in global affairs, with rules of decent conduct that took their colour from the fact of our shared humanity rather than the superiority of our particular cause being agreed and promulgated.
There is, in my view, something tremendously inhuman in Gearty's point of view. The American officers, the Iraqi colonel or any of insurgent hit men described in the story are, for all their faults, recognizable denizens of the world of men, which for all the arid attractions of Parnassian human rights, I am in no hurry to leave.