NEW YORK - September 11 - The terrorist attacks of September 11,
2001 were not only a tragedy for the victims and their families. They were
also a searing reminder that radical groups today can commit acts of
enormous violence and impact. The attacks showed with unmistakable
clarity the extent to which certain extremist Islamist groups, far from the
mainstream yet with global ambitions, have internalized the idea that the
ends justify the means, that any civilian living in a state perceived as
hostile is a legitimate target.
One might have expected the governmental response to that threat to
champion the principle so flouted by the extremists—the importance of
not treating people as means to an end but of respecting their rights as
individual human beings. Governments should have understood the need
to respect human rights not only because it is the right thing to do but also
because it provides the only hope of effectively undermining the
destructive logic of terrorism.
Sadly, the U.S. government never took that insight to heart. As the target
of the attacks five years ago, no government played a more important role
in shaping the global response to terrorism. Yet Washington's response
instead reinforced the dangerous view that laudable ends can justify brutal
Following the terrorist attacks, many Americans understandably wanted
their government to do anything possible that might protect them from
terrorism. The Bush administration exploited that fear to push through
various measures with scant regard to international human rights
standards. Systematic prisoner abuse, widespread detention without trial,
and proposed kangaroo courts were the result. Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo,
and secret CIA prisons became the unfortunate symbols of U.S.
counterterrorism efforts. Even within the United States, the rights of many
Muslim men were compromised through the misuse of laws such as those
on detaining immigrants and “material witnesses." Governments around
the world, in turn, exploited the U.S. government's example to launch or
defend repression of their own.
These abuses are wrong as a matter of fundamental rights. Though done in
the name of protection from terrorism, they are also counterproductive.
Fighting terrorism effectively requires not just stopping existing terrorists
but also preventing the generation of new ones. By all accounts, U.S.
abuses in the name of fighting terrorism have been a boon to terrorist
recruiters. The loss of the moral high ground has made it harder to
dissuade angry young men from resorting to the deliberate killing of
Many of the abuses also reflect a counterterrorism strategy that is too
narrow. Most experts insist that, in comparison with other law
enforcement methods such as surveillance or searches, information
garnered from interrogation plays a relatively small role in cracking
secretive criminal conspiracies. The most important source of all is tips
from members of the general public—ordinary citizens, often from the
same community as a would-be terrorist, who might report suspicious
activity next door or the approach of a terrorist recruiter. Abusive
interrogation can discourage such cooperation because many potential
sources of information want nothing to do with “dirty war" tactics that
may be used against their neighbors or even themselves. Cooperation from
other governments can be similarly undermined.
For these practical reasons, and because Americans and people around the
world are morally outraged by U.S. government tactics, Washington has
begun to change its approach. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Bush
administration's attempts to exclude Guantánamo from U.S. legal
protections or to prosecute alleged terrorists before military commissions
that violate the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. Congress rejected a Bush
administration claim that the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading
treatment does not protect non-Americans held by U.S. forces outside the
United States. These developments, coupled with revelations of the CIA's
secret detention centers and growing public pressure, led President Bush
to close those secret prisons, at least for the moment. Uniformed members
of the U.S. military, successfully resisting pressure from their civilian
superiors, have reaffirmed rules against the abusive techniques that those
superiors had authorized.
Yet major battles remain:
* The Bush administration still subscribes to the view that it is
engaged in a “global" war, so suspects can be detained as “enemy
combatants" anywhere in the world, including the United States,
and held without charge or trial until the end of the “war against
terrorism," which may never come. That theory threatens the basic
rights of us all.
* Even though it has now been reaffirmed that U.S. law clearly
outlaws all forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the
administration is trying to decriminalize such mistreatment to
protect anyone who has authorized or deployed it in the last five
* The administration still claims the right to send suspects to
countries that regularly torture, hiding behind the fig leaf that a
government's mere diplomatic promise to treat suspects well, with
little more, is credible even when that government regularly flouts
major multilateral treaties against torture.
* The administration is still pressing for trials before military
commissions where suspects could be convicted and even executed
on the basis of evidence they never see, witnesses they never
confront, and testimony that has been forcibly extracted.
* The administration has never repudiated the view that the president
as commander-in-chief can ignore or even violate laws that protect
The arguments advanced to defend these ongoing abuses are weak. No one
denies that terrorist incidents should be prevented as well as punished, but
existing criminal laws allow the government to stop terrorist plans before
they are carried out. No one denies that military force must sometimes be
used against terrorist groups, but that does not justify pretending that the
entire world is a battlefield where criminal justice rights can be suspended.
No one denies that protecting intelligence sources and methods is
important, but existing U.S. courts, both civilian and military, have done
that well for decades, even in the face of raging wars and serious security
The important goal of curbing terrorism does not justify a response
without limits. So for reasons of pragmatism as well as principle, the best
way to mark the fifth anniversary of September 11 would be with a
rejection of the logic of terrorism and a renewed commitment to human
rights. The rights of people matter. The ends do not justify any means.
Respecting human rights—and encouraging other governments to do the
same—is not only the right way to curb terrorism but also the most
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director
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