Obama vs. Osama

The brouhaha over ex–Obama advisor Samantha Power raises another issue: should suspected terrorists be treated as garden-variety criminals or something else altogether?

One reads about bickering in Senator Clinton's staff, and questions are raised about her management style. But much less such noise is heard from Obama HQ, who seems to practice what he preaches: bringing people together. His positive proclivity was put to test recently when one of his senior advisors called Hillary a "monster." The advisor, Samantha Power, resigned, but Obama refrained from criticizing her in public. This is even more telling because it is not the first time Power undermined her candidate by her public statements.

Power published an essay in the New York Times Book Review on July 29, 2007. In it she argues that it is both morally wrong and politically unwise to treat terrorists as soldiers instead of subjecting them to the criminal justice system.

I greatly admire Professor Power's courage and passion. She regularly risked her life to report directly from the war zone in Bosnia. Her book, The Problem from Hell, is a very powerful condemnation of the superpowers that could have stopped genocides, but chose to ignore them.

Power's New York Times essay, however, suffers from a particular sort of failure which is typical of political campaigns but which academics usually avoid; namely, the essay reduces the world into a simple black and white dichotomy. The essay argues that calling for a "war on terrorism" is a glaring policy error, and that instead terrorists ought to be viewed as criminals. We are told that a counterterrorism strategy that treats the terrorists as soldiers (which is implied by the call for a "war on terrorism") encourages policies that trample on rights-of terrorists as well as of many others-while glorifying the terrorists as warriors and also violating international law. Regular police methods and the courts, Power implies, are the preferred way to deal with terrorists. This is not a position Obama has embraced, although I respect the fact that he did not publicly disassociate himself from Power's statements.

As I see it, both images-along with the strategies, tactics and laws they invoke-are misleading. It is best to follow political science in this matter and view terrorists as a distinct category. (Granted, calling them "nonstate actors" is a particularly infelicitous term, too open-ended as well as awkward.) Unlike bonafide soldiers, terrorists do not wear uniforms indicating which government is responsible for their acts. And they frequently and easily pass themselves off as civilians, imposing unique and heavy burdens on those who must fight them. But it does not follow that terrorists are best treated as criminals.

Typically, criminals do not set out to terrorize a nation, change its policies or replace its regime. Above all, criminals do not aspire to use weapons of mass destruction and do not use suicide as a tactic in pursuit of some shared collective goal. Because the threat posed by terrorists is particularly severe, and because terrorists-especially suicide bombers-cannot be deterred by post-hoc punishments, curbing terrorism requires a different approach than law enforcement. The first goal in dealing with terrorists must be prevention, not prosecution after the act has been committed-which is the way society limits criminality.

Once we get away from merely trying to score debating points and begin to look for just and effective counterterrorism policies, we find that terrorists are best treated as a distinct group. They are surely entitled to basic human rights, as all human beings are. However, we cannot allow them full access to all the evidence against them, which criminals are entitled to, without creating unacceptable security risks. (I favor allowing terrorists to choose among lawyers who have security clearance, allowing these lawyers to see the government's evidence but not its sources and methods). Terrorists should not be detained endlessly without being charged in a court of law, but the government should have a right to hold them longer than regular criminals, to allow time for finding their partners before disclosing that they have been captured.

One may well differ about these details but agree that it makes little sense to treat terrorists as either soldiers or criminals, and we should instead treat them as a category unto themselves. At issue is not a matter of neat classifications, but ways to maintain the institutions of a free society while protecting it from devastating terrorist attacks.


Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at the George Washington University and, most recently, the author of Security First: For A Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy.