Amnesty International is beating its anti-American drum again. In 2005, AI’s secretary-general Irene Khan called the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo “the gulag of our time.” Aside from defaming the U.S., this grotesque metaphor belittled the martyrdom of the millions of victims of the real gulags, most of whom did not survive the experience and none of whom were terrorists. Rather, they were sent to their doom for such offenses as being “the wife of an enemy of the people.”
On Wednesday, AI issued its 2007 report, and Khan was back at it. “One of the biggest blows to human rights has been the attempt of Western democratic states to roll back some fundamental principles of human rights,” she said. Which “democratic states”? As Khan continued, with characteristic restraint, “the U.S. administration’s doublespeak has been breathtakingly shameless. It is unrepentant about the global web of abuse it has spun in the name of counterterrorism.”
But who is doing the doublespeak? The war against terrorism is the supreme human-rights struggle of our time. This is so because the first human right is the right to life, and scores of innocents every day have it brutally snatched from them by terrorists. It is so, too, because the regimes that succor terrorists are themselves among the world’s most repressive and because the jihadists and other radicals who carry out terrorism aim to become rulers themselves. If they succeed, they will show their subjects no more mercy than they do their victims today. And the war on terror is doubly a campaign for human rights because the Bush administration has “shamelessly” built its anti-terror strategy around the objective of promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle East.
Is it odd for a bloody war to be the fulcrum of the struggle for human rights? Not at all. The two greatest victories for human rights of the last century (and probably of all time) were the allied victory over the Axis in World War II and the West’s victory over the Soviet Union in the cold war. These spelled the difference between life and death, freedom and slavery, for hundreds of millions of people. The greatest victory for human rights in American history was the North’s victory in the Civil War, ending slavery. (Amnesty International was not around, of course, at the time of the Civil War or World War II. But it was in business during the cold war, toward which it adopted a posture of studied neutrality. In other words, in the great human-rights battle of its time, Amnesty went AWOL.)
In each of these wars, our side was guilty of human-rights violations more egregious than anything that has happened at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Some of those were necessary—as President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus may have been—and others were shameful, like the detention of Japanese-American citizens by FDR. But even these egregious abuses pale in comparison to the stakes of the wars, stakes that had everything to do with human rights.
Today, it may be that some U.S. actions in the war on terror are questionable or blameworthy. But such derogations are trivial in comparison with what is at issue between us and the terrorists. No one genuinely devoted to human rights can be blind to this. Those who ignore it are using the lingo of human rights to pursue some other agenda.