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Sticks and stones

Facing allegations of human rights abuse from Amnesty International and a score of organizations in weeks past, both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney could muster little more than childish responses. Vice President Cheney called the allegations “absurd,” while the President contended that these reports were sensationalized by organizations “that hate America.” Unfortunately, name calling does not soothe the raw wounds that still remain from abuses at Abu Gharib and Guantanamo Bay—stories intensified by an Arab media with a voracious appetite for American injustice.

In the features section of the Arab paper Gulf News, an entire page of a May 24 issue has been dedicated to American abuse of the Quran and global reaction to Guantanamo Bay. Across the Arab world, televisions, radios, even school plays have focused on the Cuban prison as a mark of American hypocrisy. Former prisoners become instant celebrities, and they are given virtually unrestricted air time to relay their tales. And if that wasn’t enough, station ads feature American soldiers towering over prisoners in orange jumpsuits.

Even if these stories are lies or exaggerations, they have an emotional resonance that must be addressed. Piece by piece, story by gruesome story, the battle for hearts and minds is being lost, while the enemy’s resolve is quietly being strengthened. We must begin to consider the administration of justice as the most significant part of the broader war on terror, and not as a needless hurdle. It’s a tough, nearly impossible job, but we signed up for it the day we moved into Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is arguably the only way to achieve our long-term goals for the region.

First things first, there must be zero-tolerance for the desecration of the Quran and the senseless torture of prisoners. These kinds of actions spawn the bulk of anti-American sentiment, and they are poisonous to our troops and allies working on the ground. Next, we must radically streamline the judicial process so that those detainees who are innocent are quickly released. It’s operationally taxing, legally questionable, and logically foolish to keep prisoners who have committed no crime. In addition, we must slowly shift detainees into prisons and compounds that are controlled by Iraqis themselves. This is not to say that American troops will not have the opportunity to interrogate, but an American soldier out of sight will soon become an American soldier out of mind. Many of these changes are already underway, but if they are not pursued with due diligence, then we will simply continue to face the same criticism and negative publicity from all corners of the Arab world.

This may also be the time to explore novel solutions. Though it has been all but neglected by the Bush administration, the time is ripe to expand or reconfigure the purview of the International Criminal Court. With Saddam Hussein awaiting trial, what better way to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to justice than by appealing to the international community? While the administration has been quick to jump on the ICC’s failures, using it judiciously would no doubt silence many of the most vocal critics of U.S. policy and win back much-needed international caché.

If we reconceptualize the administration of justice as the core of the President’s mantra of “liberty and freedom for all,” then not only can we justify our actions in the region, but we can apply international pressure to other prickly regimes. It’s certainly a more practical approach than twiddling our thumbs while waiting for another eruption like Abu Gharib. And it can only serve to hasten our exit from Iraq.

More than strategic successes, the legacy of the war on terror will be felt if we are able to successfully answer these questions about justice. Ultimately, this legacy will be shaped more by the lasting images and perceptions in the Arab world than by any U.S. policy decision. And these perceptions are only coarsened by our mistreatment and mishandling of justice. We must always remember that in a war on terror, sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can haunt you forever.

Jimmy Soni is a Trinity Junior.

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