The Book Club


Dear Gideon,

Okay, our final joust.

Such are the restraints on erosion of civil liberties in America–and thank heaven for it–that I suppose the important line between existing freedoms and increased police powers to monitor a cult advocating violence is a line that is likely to be adjusted, if at all, only after more experience of domestic terrorism, either threatened or real; and not in advance of it. In countries such as Britain, Germany, and Israel, security agencies are less restrained, but after longer experience with terrorism. In Britain, for example, special powers were given to the police in the face of the IRA’s bombing campaign. Heymann portends a time when changes may be made to U.S. domestic surveillance laws. “In the end,” he writes, “the limited threat to uninhibited discussion posed by even reasonable efforts to monitor organizations preaching violence is a price worth paying to prevent political violence.”

But I prefer, at this stage, to see what can be done internationally. There is an important effort being made by Heymann and others to introduce a new international convention that would add to domestic legislation already in place. The Antiterrorism Act of 1996 (introduced after the Oklahoma bombing) criminalizes terrorist activity at home. For example, it’s a federal crime for any U.S. citizen knowingly to engage in a financial deal with a country that has been designated as supporting terrorism by the U.S. secretary of state. The act also supports sanctions against countries promoting terrorism and corporations exporting materials that could be used to make weapons of mass destruction.

The new proposal, backed by Heymann, is the brainchild of Professor Matthew Meselson, the Harvard molecular biologist who was instrumental in persuading Nixon to outlaw biological weapons in 1969, and Julian Perry Robinson of the University of Sussex in Britain.

The idea is to personalize the law: to extend sanctions against countries and corporations to individuals–including CEO’s of corporations and heads of state. The proposal would make it an offense for any person, regardless of official position, to order, direct, or knowingly participate in anything to do with biological or chemical weapons–producing them or threatening to use them. Individuals who engage in the production or use of such weapons would be hostes humani generis, enemies of all humanity, like war criminals.

The new treaty would define specific acts involving such weapons in the same way as other international crimes are defined–such as piracy or aircraft hijacking.

The current conventions banning chemical and biological weapons have been ratified by 120 and 141 countries respectively. Importantly, any state signed up for these conventions would be obliged either to prosecute or extradite offenders caught on their territory–regardless of the place where the offense took place or the nationality of the offender.

If such a proposal is passed, terrorists would, in law at any rate, have their support cut from under them.

One way forward is for a group of states to submit the proposed convention in the form of a resolution to the U.N. General Assembly, which could then refer it to the assembly’s legal committee. If it passes, the assembly could open the proposal for signature and ratification. And it seems to be we’d all be better off.

This is my modest offer, in conclusion. It’s been a pleasure corresponding with you, Gideon. You set the tone–friendly jousting, informed debate, a few jokes when the going got tough. And you did agree with me, didn’t you, that every reader should be aware of the totality of the forces that produced these books; it’s not just the changing face of “rogue” or sub-state violence?