June 28, 2004

Psst... it's a metaphorical war

Today's series of Supreme Court decisions defining the breadth of Executive Branch discretion over who is held incommunicado where and for how long, is ably summed up elsewhere.

Having little to add to the analysis of the Court's opinions, I'll throw in my two cents about the Blogosphere's opinions, which appear predictably to be divided between the Left, who support limits on Executive discretion, and the Right, who seem not to mind at all.

My goal -- and I'm not sure I've succeeded -- is to try to explain why I think this discussion is laced with absurdity. It's all very rational and learned; don't get me wrong. It's just that I keep thinking that somehow we're arguing about the wrong things. Or rather, that we're not arguing about enough things.

There's an unexamined premise that needs digging up -- before we can decide whether today's Supreme Court decisions are worthy of celebration or scorn:

"We are at war."

We're at war with Afghanistan. We're at war in Afghanistan. We're at war with insurgents in Afghanistan, although the government there is our ally. We were at war in Afghanistan, and that war was fought by the prisoners held in Guantanamo. So we're still at war with them, although they're in custody. If we release them, the war in Afghanistan will flare up again, because the people we were at war with will return to Afghanistan and restart the war.

We're at war with Iraq. We were at war with Iraq, but the government that we were at war with has been replaced. We took over the country, but now we've transferred sovereignty back to the Iraqis. Our troops can't leave because they're needed to provide security.

We're at war with Al Qaeda. We can't tell if we're winning or not. Tom Ridge raises the alert level to yellow from time to time. Al Qaeda wants to kill Americans. They've already killed several thousand on 9-11. Before 9-11, we were at war with drugs. Drugs have already killed thousands of Americans.

We're at warwith Terrorism. We can't tell if we're winning. We don't know whether we'll ever defeat Terrorism. Maybe John Ashcroft will tell us when it's over, and whether we've won or not. Maybe he won't.

Posted by Carey at June 28, 2004 11:45 PM

Hey, there also used to be a war on poverty. Let's start that up again. Anyone who doesn't pay a living wage can be declared an enemy combatant and thrown into jail.

Posted by: Nicole at June 29, 2004 02:30 PM


Pardon me, but isn't the lack of an actual government that we're at war with a bit more of a problem than the lack of a formal declaration by Congress? I don't know if you recall Supreme Court cases, but if you take a gander at Youngstown it seems pretty clear that wars have defined boundaries and arenas, which are in fact the judiciary's business.

And I think that anyone, everyone, should be wary of the lack of definition of the "enemy" in this war. "Al Qaeda and its allies" is awfully vague, you know. Particularly if it encompasses Iraq, a state that Bin Laden regularly decried as far too secular. If the war can be defined as "anyone we can tar with that brush" it really isn't a war. It's an excuse.

Posted by: Heidi at June 30, 2004 09:37 AM

And by the way, Zev, where do you get this extraordinary idea that the conduct of war is none of the judiciary's business?

Posted by: Heidi at June 30, 2004 09:39 AM

Fine, amend my comment to not just "lack of government" but "lack of defined enemy". Who, exactly, are Al Qaeda's allies? Apparently, anyone within a few degrees of separation.

Posted by: Heidi at June 30, 2004 09:41 PM