The line between soldier and civilian has long been central to the law of war. Today that line is being blurred in the struggle against transnational terrorists. Since 9/11 the Bush administration has sought to categorize members of Al Qaeda and other jihadists as "unlawful combatants" rather than treat them as criminals.
The federal courts are increasingly wary of this approach, and rightly so. In a stinging rebuke, this summer a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., struck down the government's indefinite detention of a civilian, Ali al-Marri, by the military. The case illustrates once again the pitfalls of our current approach.
Treating terrorists as combatants is a mistake for two reasons. First, it dignifies criminality by according terrorist killers the status of soldiers. Under the law of war, military service members receive several privileges. They are permitted to kill the enemy and are immune from prosecution for doing so. They must, however, carefully distinguish between combatant and civilian and ensure that harm to civilians is limited.
Critics have rightly pointed out that traditional categories of combatant and civilian are muddled in a struggle against terrorists. In a traditional war, combatants and civilians are relatively easy to distinguish. The 9/11 hijackers, by contrast, dressed in ordinary clothes and hid their weapons. They acted not as citizens of Saudi Arabia, an ally of America, but as members of Al Qaeda, a shadowy transnational network. And their prime targets were innocent civilians.
By treating such terrorists as combatants, however, we accord them a mark of respect and dignify their acts. And we undercut our own efforts against them in the process. Al Qaeda represents no state, nor does it carry out any of a state's responsibilities for the welfare of its citizens. Labeling its members as combatants elevates its cause and gives Al Qaeda an undeserved status.
If we are to defeat terrorists across the globe, we must do everything possible to deny legitimacy to their aims and means, and gain legitimacy for ourselves. As a result, terrorism should be fought first with information exchanges and law enforcement, then with more effective domestic security measures. Only as a last resort should we call on the military and label such activities "war." The formula for defeating terrorism is well known and time-proven.
Labeling terrorists as combatants also leads to this paradox: while the deliberate killing of civilians is never permitted in war, it is legal to target a military installation or asset. Thus the attack by Al Qaeda on the destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000 would be allowed, as well as attacks on command and control centers like the Pentagon. For all these reasons, the more appropriate designation for terrorists is not "unlawful combatant" but the one long used by the United States: criminal.
The second major problem with the approach of the Bush administration is that it endangers our political traditions and our commitment to liberty, and further damages America's legitimacy in the eyes of others. Almost 50 years ago, at the height of the cold war, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the "deeply rooted and ancient opposition in this country to the extension of military control over civilians."
A great danger in treating operatives for Al Qaeda as combatants is precisely that its members are not easily distinguished from the population at large. The government wields frightening power when it can designate who is, and who is not, subject to indefinite military detention. The Marri case turned on this issue. Mr. Marri is a legal resident of the United States and a citizen of Qatar; the government contends that he is a sleeper agent of Al Qaeda. For the last four years he has been held as an enemy combatant at the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.
The federal court held that while the government can arrest and convict civilians, under current law the military cannot seize and detain Mr. Marri. Nor would it necessarily be constitutional to do so, even if Congress expressly authorized the military detention of civilians. At the core of the court's reasoning is the belief that civilians and combatants are distinct. Had Ali al-Marri fought for an enemy nation, military detention would clearly be proper. But because he is accused of being a member of Al Qaeda, and is a citizen of a friendly nation, he should not be treated as a warrior.
Cases like this illustrate that in the years since 9/11, the Bush administration's approach to terrorism has created more problems than it has solved. We need to recognize that terrorists, while dangerous, are more like modern-day pirates than warriors. They ought to be pursued, tried and convicted in the courts. At the extreme, yes, military force may be required. But the terrorists themselves are not "combatants." They are merely criminals, albeit criminals of an especially heinous type, and that label suggests the appropriate venue for dealing with the threats they pose.
We train our soldiers to respect the line between combatant and civilian. Our political leaders must also respect this distinction, lest we unwittingly endanger the values for which we are fighting, and further compromise our efforts to strengthen our security.
Wesley K. Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO, is a fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles. Kal Raustiala is a law professor and the director of the Burkle Center.
© 2007 The New York Times