This thoughtful, challenging and deeply depressing book takes as its launch pad the Nuremberg Trials, in which the author’s father played so prominent a part. Churchill would have executed the Nazi leaders out of hand. Eisenhower wanted to exterminate all the German General Staff as well as all of the Gestapo and all Nazi Party members above the rank of Major. Wiser counsels prevailed. The Nazi leadership must be put on trial, it was agreed, and not in such a way as would rubber-stamp a verdict that had already been tacitly agreed. ‘You must put no man on trial under the forms of judicial proceeding,’ said the distinguished jurist Robert Jackson, ‘if you are not willing to see him freed if not proven guilty.’
The scale and nature of the threats are different, Shawcross argues, but ‘the ideology of al-Qa’eda and its Islamist associates shares attributes with Nazism; it, too, is totalitarian, and it, too, has anti-Semitism at its core.’ He paints a terrifying picture of fanatical and unreasoning hatred, of an unwavering determination to destroy the West, and in particular the United States, regardless of the cost in innocent lives and even though innumerable Muslims as well as Westerners must perish in the conflict.
This is war, but a war waged by those who do not obey the rules of war, to whom the Geneva Convention seems totally irrelevant. Nothing is so awful that it will deter them. Perhaps the most chilling passage in this book is the boast of Osama bin Laden that, at one of the Islamic centres in Holland, the number of those who converted to Islam immediately after 9/11 was greater than all those who had converted in the previous 11 years.
So what is to be done? Are the lessons of Nuremberg relevant to the problems of today? Are the members of al-Qa’eda soldiers or civilians? Should they be tried in military or civil courts? Should they be detained in civil prisons or detention centres like Bagram or Guantánamo Bay? Can water-boarding or other forms of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ be condoned if they patently save the lives of innocent people? These are the questions which Shawcross poses. His conclusions will not satisfy all his readers, but he argues a compelling case.
On most such issues the extreme libertarians on one side and the diehard hawks on the other take diametrically opposing views. The vast majority — of whom I am one — flounder rather helplessly between the two, bleating platitudes like ‘Up to a point, but …’ or ‘It depends what you mean by …’ On the whole the Americans, not surprisingly, given that they are bearing the brunt of the action and still bear the scars of 9/11, incline rather further towards the hawkish point of view. The Europeans, not yet convinced that Muslim fundamentalists are as much their implacable foe as they are of the Americans, incline further towards the libertarians.
Shawcross strongly supports the American approach to the problem. The United States, he claims, is
the world’s strongest and most vital democracy, and its errors are being constantly corrected. In the question of justice for the enemy … there is every reason to believe that the nation and its courts — military and civilian — will continue to interpret the law in an exemplary fashion.
The American military, he maintains, remains ‘the greatest defender of human rights that the world has ever seen’. He does not defend the atrocities that have marred the American record in some of the detention centres, but he points out that, of the thousands of al-Qa’eda suspects detained since 9/11, only 28 have been subjected to ‘enhanced interrogation’ and of these only three were water-boarded.
Second only to al-Qa’eda in Shawcross’s chamber of horrors are the ultra-liberal organisations that seek to exculpate the Moslem fundamentalists or, at least, arraign the architects of American policy as equally guilty: Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, the human rights group Reprieve, even the New York Times. Eric Holder, a Democratic lawyer destined to become Obama’s attorney-general, is held up for derision because of his failure to accept that it was radical Islam which inspired a series of actual or aborted atrocities. ‘There are a variety of reasons why people do these things,’ was as far as he would go. ‘Some of them are potentially religious.’
This book is lucidly argued, well informed and exceptionally well written. Nevertheless, it is a polemic, with little pains taken to present a balanced picture. It would have benefited from an epilogue, perhaps written by Eric Holder, setting out the libertarian point of view. As it is, we must await another book; no doubt there are plenty of them on the way.