Will America be a Global Beacon or Disgrace?

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In a war famous for its euphemisms and wordplay in which a daisy cutter is a bomb — dissent equals America-bashing and a Patriot Bill undermines the very values of freedom and democracy upon which the United States was founded — it comes as no surprise that war doesn’t always mean war.

At least, the war on terrorism was no longer a war the moment prisoners were captured. Those men who were forcibly shaved, shackled, hooded and sedated during their transfer from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray and who are currently housed in small cages aren’t prisoners of war. They are “illegal combatants” and, therefore, not protected by the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war.

Hairs can be split for days arguing about the legitimacy of this distinction — whether the Taliban was a legitimate government or, at least, a de facto one, whether the soldiers were operatives of Al Qaeda or just trying to protect Afghanistan from U.S. forces, whether it’s technically possible for the U.S. to be at war with an enemy who is not at war, or whether this is just one more example of the U.S. wanting to have it both ways.

All this would have been better handled had there been some sort of international body in place, some kind of world court, to address crimes against humanity, acts like the September 11 attacks. And if the U.S. paid more than lip service to this as a global war on terrorism and actually took some guidance from other nations, instead of tearing off on its own on a cowboy mission that, according to Tuesday’s state of the nation address, will soon be extended to Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

Instead, at the same time the U.S. sought global co-operation in its fight against terrorism, it was an ardent opponent of the International Criminal Court, which is expected to be established this year after being ratified by sixty nations.

For fear the court would be used to scrutinize U.S. armed forces, the Bush administration has gone so far as to endorse legislation that would authorize sanctions against governments that ratify the International Criminal Court (excluding North Atlantic Treaty Organization — NATO — nations and other key allies).

But back to Guantanamo Bay. Practically speaking, nothing will do more to nurse anti-American sentiment around the world — and very likely fuel more terrorist attacks — than anything that even resembles ill-treatment of prisoners in Camp X-Ray.

Is the U.S. hoping to breed more Osama bin Ladens? Because nothing will do it faster than quipping, as retired U.S. General Bernard Trainor did, in response to concerns about the prisoners being forced to kneel: “Well, they like to spend a lot of time on their knees anyway.”

It’s so outrageous that even allies of the U.S. are distancing themselves. It was European nations that raised questions after the publication of photos showing prisoners living in animal cages, under constant light and exposed to the elements. And in Ottawa, opposition MPs are challenging the Liberal government over the news that Canadian troops have captured prisoners and handed them over to the U.S.

But the U.S. is so arrogant, so certain of its might and its right, that it no longer cares about anyone else’s opinion. This isn’t just an issue of optics, though. This raises the larger question of what a post-September 11 America will be.

Remember in those early days following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, how everything was supposed to have changed. Great suffering inspired great acts of generosity, heroism and selflessness that were, in turn, supposed to inspire a renewal of positive values, a new openness and co-operation among American citizens and with the world. What happened?

Will the U.S. be a nation driven by fear, distrust and vengeance? A hypocritical nation that leads the fight against global terrorism and crimes against humanity, only to ignore human rights violations in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uzbekistan and by its own armed forces in Cuba? Or does it want to use its suffering and its loss to foster global co-operation, to reaffirm openness, freedom and fairness?

And more to the point: Will America be the be con of freedom, democracy and civil rights that it keeps saying it is?

Or will it be the kind of nation that puts bags over the heads of prisoners and hold trials in secret — acting no better, in this case, than the despots with whom it’s at war?

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