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Boundaries, Benchmarks and Bright Lines

We must make sure the boundaries and benchmarks of liberty and justice -- and democracy and compassion -- are extended to all of humanity.

After five women and three children were killed by US bombs in their compound of mud homes in Afghanistan, a US spokesman defended the killing:

"Coalition forces observed two men with AK-47s ... entering the compound," said Lt-Col David Accetta, a military spokesman. "These men knowingly endangered civilians by retreating into a populated area while conducting attacks against coalition forces." NYTimes 3/6/07

Clearly, any Afghani with an AK-47 should know that stepping inside the boundary of a family compound will trigger an attack with bombs.

We are outraged over the substandard treatment of US soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. But reports of truly horrifying treatment, torture and abuse of human beings at Abu Ghraib prison have for three years been brushed off, minimized, and explained as minor, low-level glitches in a system necessary for catching terrorists, with the prisoners deemed to be below the line separating human beings from inhuman monsters.

A benchmark for who deserves the right to free speech was proposed this week in a letter to the Record Courier about a Kent State professor accused of speaking out for what he believed in: "[Professor] Assad Pino claims his right to free speech as an American. We who were born in America have that right. Assad Pino was born in Cuba; he [has] no rights to anything." (3/7/07)

For over six years the Republicans have deliberately blurred, manipulated, dismantled or fabricated various boundaries and benchmarks. They crafted the Military Commissions Act, a bill that destroyed Constitutional limits requiring Habeas Corpus, removed boundaries on secret and coerced evidence, and allowed the president to set the benchmarks for torture and detention.

At the same time: "No one has defined where the red line is that we cannot let the Iranians step over." (Unnamed administration official, NY Times, 2/24/07) .... but few doubt that there is one, or that Iran has already stepped over it and will be summarily punished, with bombs.

This winter neither the Bush administration nor a Democratic Congress has defined bright lines, acceptable boundaries or fair benchmarks for the war in Iraq, for a looming attack on Iran, or for a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. How do we win? Where is the finish line? What are the benchmarks of victory?

Money spent? No, we already spend more for war and killing than the rest of the world put together. Number of Iraqis, insurgents, al-Qaeda, or terrorists killed? No, that's not victory, that's just slaughter, perhaps better called terrorism.

Wars are successfully won when armies surrender, insurgents lay down their arms and civilians give up. Our policies of bombing civilians, checkpoint killings, prisoner torture and secret detentions, and our lack of military discipline that allows soldiers to kill or mistreat prisoners and civilians doesn't make surrender tempting -- just the opposite. People who expect to be killed regardless of whether they attack, run away, or give up, see no reason to surrender and easily conclude that the best option is a suicide mission.


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In the Revolutionary War General George Washington commanded that prisoners be decently treated, both from humane sentiment and from understanding that the British and Hessian troops would be more likely to surrender or lay down their arms if they saw a better future. It worked -- many "enemies" stayed on to become citizens in the new nation that treated them humanely.

The "war on terror" in Iraq created by the Bush administration is now so monstrously asymmetric that it is hard to imagine any possible resolution. It has destroyed any hope of a decent life for everyone in Iraq -- Sunnis, Shias, insurgents, civilians alike, and is rapidly quashing such hopes for Iranians and Afghanis

It's not just moral authority that we have lost. By being the biggest, strongest and most terrifying terrorists in history we've lost the war on terror, and we've lost our national security. We're not safer now from terrorist attack -- or even consequences of natural disaster -- than we were five years ago.

John Glenn used to say that the best part of the Pledge of Allegiance was the ending, "with liberty and justice for all." Not just for a few, not just for the deserving, not just for Christians or patriots, or white people, but "for all."

In today's global society we must make sure the boundaries and benchmarks of liberty and justice -- and democracy and compassion -- are extended to all of humanity. If we reserve free speech only for Americans, there will be no free speech for anyone. If our news managers make brutality and depravity sound reasonable, legitimate and within bounds, we will all be mired in brutality and depravity. If we put boundaries on other nations' nuclear weapons with none for ours, we will all live under the threat of nuclear holocaust.

We Americans can start by drawing some bright lines for Congress: No more money for war in Iraq. No more nuclear weapons. Restore the limits on torture and secret evidence. Put boundaries on the power of the President .

We need to take the lead in engaging all people-- especially those we now exclude as insurgents, terrorists, religious fanatics -- in agreeing on boundaries, benchmarks and bright lines.

Only then can we look forward to a future without war, terror, and hatred -- and with liberty and justice --

... for all.

Caroline Arnold

Caroline Arnold retired in 1997 after 12 years on the staff of US Senator John Glenn. She previously served three terms on the Kent (Ohio) Board of Education. In retirement she is active with the Kent Environmental Council and sits on the board of Family & Community Services of Portage County. Her Letters From Washington has been published as an e-Book by the Knowledge Bank of the Ohio State University Library.  E-mail:

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