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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2002
The theory of psychological egoism suggests that all human behaviors are ultimately motivated by selfish interests. Even when people appear to be performing a selfless act, the theory goes, there are personal agendas at work.
I find this idea intriguingly apt as a philosophical basis for our military to treat the 158 Taliban and al-Qaida detainees at Guantanamo Bay with dignity and the full protections of the Geneva Conventions. I'm not making a plea for altruism or doing what's right, although it would be nice to see our government motivated by either one. I'm just suggesting that it is in our selfish interests to do a more respectful job with our captives.
The images from Camp X-Ray of shackled prisoners on their knees with blacked-out goggles and face masks have bounced around the world, raising loud protests from human rights groups and careful ones from some of our allies. Britain sent a delegation to check on its three citizens imprisoned at X-Ray, and while the investigation team came away saying there were "no complaints," clearly there is lingering unease.
The American military's response was to assure the world that the prisoners were only kept that way temporarily. When they were dispatched to their open-air cells, all the restraints came off, said a military spokesman.
We are missing the point. It wasn't just the physical discomfort of the prisoners, it was their humiliation at our hands. Stripped of their human dignity, forcibly shaved, in violation of their religion and culture, and placed in a supplicant position, they were a pitiful spectacle. The military chose to circulate those images (photographic swagger?) and was admonished for it by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which said the captives were being made a "public curiosity."
You have to wonder, though, how those pictures were received by the Muslim world, a place we seek to dispossess of anger over perceived U.S. arrogance. Wouldn't our vital national security objectives have been better served by handling these prisoners in precisely the same way we would want our soldiers to be treated upon capture? Wouldn't that show ourselves as a superpower not too big to respect the rules of war? Think about how differently this saga would be playing out had Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stood before the television cameras, Geneva Conventions in hand, and proclaimed: "In 1949, the civilized world laid down the rules for captured enemy fighters and the United States intends to follow every one in both letter and spirit." Really, what would that have cost us?
Rumsfeld has defended the treatment of the prisoners as consistent with the Geneva Conventions "for the most part," but would he be quite so sanguine if the situation were reversed? Would he find it understandable for security purposes for a foreign power to hold American fighting forces in cages resembling kennels, exposed to the elements and disease-carrying mosquitoes and under 24-hour flood lights? And how would he feel if our captured fighting forces were denied prisoner-of-war status -- and all its attendant rights -- at the whim of our enemy's leaders (when the Geneva Conventions require the appointment of a special tribunal to determine who qualifies as a POW)?
Nations enforce international law due to the "apprehension of reciprocity," notes Alfred Rubin, distinguished professor of international law at Tufts University. He says, "Every country enforces the Geneva Conventions by itself and, in doing so, deals with the issue of how it would like its own folks to be treated."
During the Vietnam War our military leaders initially didn't want to designate the Viet Cong prisoners as POWs. We did so because we wanted our captured soldiers to be treated as POWs by the North Vietnamese. During both the Korea and Vietnam conflicts we vociferously objected to violations of the Geneva Conventions relative to our POWs.
Things have changed since then, and it could be our country is no longer susceptible to the apprehension of reciprocity. When you fight wars remotely with smart bombs and dummy surveillance drones, few soldiers are at risk of capture.
But psychological egoism would still land us on the side of expansively interpreting international human rights law. A world that assimilates norms of humane treatment, respect for the individual and fair process is a far safer one. We are the world's leader and all eyes are on us to see whether we take the high road. Our interests irrefutably lie in doing so.