Sixty years ago, German soldiers shaved off the beards of Orthodox Jews. Now American soldiers are doing the same to Islamic fundamentalists captured in Afghanistan, before flying them to a detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Other aspects of the US response are similarly troubling. Hundreds of Afghan civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of careless targeting. Unexploded cluster bomblets will harm thousands more. The destruction of the al-Jazeera TV bureau in Kabul, plans for special military commissions with low evidentiary standards, the refusal to accord detainees presumptive POW status all indicate a casual disregard for international opinion and the laws of war. Most disturbing, however, are some of the threats uttered by President Bush. The assertion that 'you're either with us or against us' obviates a central aspect of state sovereignty - the right not to be involved - and recasts the US as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. The identification of an 'axis of evil' between Iran, Iraq and North Korea challenges one of the 20th century's greatest achievements: the prohibition of the threat or use of force in international affairs. The aberration may be temporary, but there are reasons to believe that something fundamental has changed.
LRB 21 February 2002 | PDF Download