War Stories

Snap Misjudgment

How the United States violated John Walker Lindh’s rights.

John Walker Lindh

CBS News revealed late last week that the Pentagon has some photos of John Walker Lindh, taken while he was in military custody, showing GIs posing with the handcuffed prisoner, who is wearing a blindfold featuring an obscenity intended to demean him. Sources tell me that the soldiers were from the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group and that the blindfold said, “shithead.”

This development could prove very problematic for the federal prosecution of Lindh. His lawyers (who, it seems, have not yet, as this column goes to the Web, been able to view the photos) could argue that the images strongly suggest that upon capture Lindh was held in an intimidating atmosphere in which his rights were routinely ignored—no small thing, since the central issue in the case is whether Lindh voluntarily waived his right to an attorney before making several incriminating statements about his life in the Taliban.

But that issue is complicated—the pictures don’t prove anything directly about how Lindh’s rights to an attorney were treated, and defendants have no absolute right not to be photographed—and no doubt will consume months of legal jockeying. Even so, the pictures do unequivocally prove something else right now—that the United States violated Lindh’s rights under the Geneva Convention.

Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention, the main international treaty covering the treatment of prisoners of war, states, “[P]risoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” And Article 14 states, “Prisoners of war are entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honor.” These tenets should ring a bell at the Pentagon, since they are precisely the ones the United States cited during the Vietnam War, when it bitterly and rightly complained about Hanoi’s practice of forcing American POWs to make statements on the radio or to parade in the street, in prison garb, heads bowed.

So, the Pentagon has every reason to treat these pictures as seriously as the Lindh defense team does. And the troopers who snapped them and appeared in them did not do so merely on their own whim—they would only do so because they operated in a command environment that permitted and even encouraged such behavior. Therefore, the Department of Defense had better investigate not just the underlings whose bad judgment is on film, but also their superior officers, all the way up the chain of command. (Indeed, here’s a prediction based on my own military experience: These pictures will not be the last ones of this sort that will see the light of day. There were many military stops between Lindh’s capture and his handover to civilian legal authorities. Do you really think that somehow only this one Army outfit developed a perverted sense of what it could do with him?)

This episode illustrates two cultural norms that have arisen in this country since 9/11. 1) The war against terror is at bottom all about the feelings we naturally have as a result of what was done to us. Any soldier who’d risked his life and lost some buddies would naturally feel that way if he got his hands on Lindh, right? 2) What we are trying to do against terrorism trumps every other value. In this mentality, the Geneva Convention becomes suddenly dispensable.

Both are mistakes. Terrorism isn’t countered by rampant feelings—it thrives on them. And the Geneva Convention isn’t a nicety—it represents the level of decency in war that we embrace when we reject terrorism.