Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Are Foreigners Less Human Than I Am?

In a recent interview, Dick Cheney criticized the new political climate in which people "are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States."

That statement is worthy of ridicule. Cheney pretends that a large majority of US military captives are "Al Qaeda terrorists." But the real concern is that non-terrorists may be locked away without a fair trial. The US military has no business snatching up people and incarcerating them (and perhaps worse) for an indefinite time period. The time has long since passed for the US military to either put up solid evidence against those folks, or to let them go.

The bottom line: Dick Cheney wants you to assume the folks in Guantanamo deserve to suffer until it's proven otherwise. You don't know them, and they haven't been given a fair trial. The Bush administration convinced us that those prisoners do not deserve (what many Americans would consider) the basic human right of a fair trial.

Here's a related, all-too-familiar story. Hamas shoots rockets into Israel. Israel responds disproportionately, and many civilians are killed because they "got in the way" of the lesson that Israel needed to teach Hamas.

The bottom line: Any "disproportionate response" that involves civilians requires a calculus of human lives. Israel made a decision that the lives of Palestinian citizens were of small value compared to the lives of Israelis.

I'm sure there are terrorists incarcerated at Guantanamo, and I have sympathy for Israel and other nations that are attacked by terrorists or otherwise. But, Cheney aside, there's more to the story.

It's well-known that, in wartime, demonizing the enemy will stir up public support of the war. But in these cases, the demons are not soldiers or political leaders. We have demonized ordinary people who were unlucky enough to get in the way.

The distinction is as fundamental as the American creed "innocent until proven guilty."

Will we continue to follow Cheney's lead in assuming that foreigners are guilty until proven innocent? If we do not consider other nations and ethnic groups to be worthy of the human rights we claim for ourselves, who will defend us when we are in need?