The U.S. government routinely uses the term “War on Terror” to describe its military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how do we really define this “War on Terror”? After all, terrorism dates back to at least the 14th century, and individuals, groups and even nations have employed it ever since.
It’s hard to argue that the deployment of a bigger gun or faster tank can actually alter the outcome of either the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, let alone defeat terrorism. The U.S. armed forces have undeniably defeated the organized militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the question now is whether the military can obliterate the ideas and policies that drive the growing use of terrorism.
The fact is, terrorism originates from dark and damp alleys of apathy, poverty, disenfranchisement and misunderstanding. It is a tactic that can support any set of ideals, especially for groups that lack sufficient power to rebel openly. As a result, terrorism in its many forms likely will never be defeated.
More to the point, we certainly cannot expect to defeat terrorism when the “War on Terror” itself creates indifference and fosters misunderstanding among our own citizens. In America, we now accept secrecy in this “War on Terror” as common, acceptable and subject only to the amount of scrutiny that shadowy operatives in the government deem appropriate for disclosure.
In America, the “War on Terror” has become a subjective “us” versus “them” battle that serves to advance stereotypes based upon who we believe we are as Americans and who, or what, we perceive “them” to be. In a real sense, significant effort has gone toward convincing Americans with little worldly experience that a billion Muslim “them” think a certain way and hate us for our free and democratic way of life.
The “War on Terror” should be about taking the moral high ground and protecting law-abiding people of all races, ethnicity and religious faiths. But in the past eight years, it has wrongly been used to sell the idea that the arbitrary “them” are sub-human because they are not like “us.” Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are perfect examples of what happens as a result. These military prisons are already touchstones for the “War on Terror” in history books and nothing we do will ever change that. But, certainly we can do more than continue the mistakes of current and past presidential administrations.
While prosecuting cases in Iraqi courts, I personally witnessed the consequences of misguided U.S. policies. The defendants I was prosecuting were much more likely to be unemployed Iraqis trying to make money, rather than extremists driven by religion or philosophy. Often, when it came to offering justifications for opposing U.S. forces, defendants would cite Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay or the United States’ invasion of Iraq. Very few cited historic or religious animosity as the basis for their actions.
As the number of Guantanamo detainees falls below 180 from a one-time high of 775, what will the released men say about their time at Guantanamo Bay and their opinions of the United States? Bear in mind that, for many, Guantanamo was their only American experience. How would their perceptions differ had we afforded these men the same rights we provide every American accused of a crime, no matter how malicious? At a minimum, we would have maintained the high standards of humanity upon which we, as Americans, used to pride ourselves. And we would have maintained the respect we have since lost, even from our closest allies. Instead, at a time when we should have set a shining example through exemplary adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights, we employed arbitrary long-term detention, “harsh” interrogation techniques and a complete abandonment of due process.
My client, a Kuwaiti named Fayiz al-Kandari, has been confined in a cage at Guantanamo Bay for more than eight years. While we cannot make up for the time Fayiz has lost, we as a country can offer him justice by granting him an opportunity to hear the charges against him, present real evidence, roll back the curtain of secrecy and defend himself in an established court of law.
The only way to win the “War on Terror” is to rise above it and reclaim our leadership role by recognizing international law and not creating policy based on fear. Until we as a nation once again hold ourselves to the standards we demand of others, we will continue to lose friends and create enemies.
Our nation has survived dark times in the past and we can do so again — not by hiding our mistakes, but by publically rejecting them and changing course. In the present instance, a fair and public trial in a real court for every detainee at Guantanamo Bay is essential. We must put an end to the approach of placing human beings in legal black holes and allowing fear to dictate a policy that contradicts what we have defined as our American way of life.
The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the United States government. Lt. Col. Wingard is a military lawyer who represents Fayiz al-Kandari and has served for 26 years in the military. When not on active duty, he is a public defender in the city of Pittsburgh.