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Combatants or Criminals? How Washington Should Handle Terrorists

Courtesy Reuters

Fighting a War Under Its Rules

Ruth Wedgwood

Kenneth Roth chides the Bush administration for using armed force and the law of armed conflict to capture and detain al Qaeda's key operatives ("The Law of War in the War on Terror," January/February 2004). It is not clear, says Roth, that the "war on terrorism" is a real war, and in any event, U.S. criminal laws should be sufficient for dealing with the terrorists.

But a war is in fact raging, and criminal law is too weak a weapon. That was the lesson the United States learned too late, on September 11, 2001, after a decade of arresting and trying terrorist suspects. As a former head of the fbi's Joint Terrorist Task Force has remarked, the U.S. government could not stop al Qaeda bombings by treating them as ordinary homicides. Using such techniques, Washington did manage to take some people off

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