Incentives for Terrorists

Reader Ben Orlanski weighed in yesterday with a key point on the treatment of Guantanamo detainees. His e-mail to Max Boot and me reads, in part:

The principal danger is further undermining the Geneva Conventions. These were, as you two know better than anyone, conventions to protect innocents by incentivizing decent behavior in war. Hence, protections are granted to those who fight decently, and are denied to those who don’t. The great danger here is that, by treating the indecent with decency, we undermine the very distinction the Geneva Conventions were designed to uphold, which, therefore, makes indecency (i.e., terrorism) more attractive, because it has more benefits and fewer disadvantages. … Obama’s plans to move terrorists to the US mainland is just another step in the same direction that has us trying KSM in civilian court.

Ben notes that some of the blurring of distinctions has already occurred thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court but argues it would be a mistake to compound the error. He directs our attention to a recent column by Bill McGurn, who detailed this argument in connection with the KSM trial:

We don’t often speak of incentives in war. That’s a loss, because the whole idea of, say, Geneva rights is based on the idea of providing combatants with incentives to do things that help limit the bloodiness of battle. These include wearing a uniform, carrying arms openly, not targeting civilians, and so on. Terrorists recognize none of these things. …

And the argument, as Ben points out, is equally applicable to the planned closing of Guantanamo and the relocation of its detainees to U.S. prisons. Indeed, it seems to be the Obama team’s motive to eradicate the distinction between common criminals and the terrorists/detainees, not to mention the distinction (now partially eradicated) between terrorists and those who historically have been afforded protection under the Geneva Convention. The Obami intend to give the terrorists civilian trials, place them within the geographic jurisdiction of federal courts, house them in American prisons, and, as we saw with Richard Reid, afford them all the rights and privileges of ordinary criminals should they complain about their treatment.

In doing so, the administration not only provides perverse incentives to terrorists. It also conveys to them that, while they see this as a war, we do not. And that is the worst message we can possibly send.