When referring to a person as an ‘enemy combatant,’ it is typically in the context of a war between states, particularly when one state is holding a military officer or member of the opposing state. It is state that is normally afforded fewer rights and privileges as a prisoner of war, and is often used to be able to punish or interrogate prisoners without needing to give the individual the treatment and rights that are offered them in the Geneva Convention. Before 9/11, an enemy combatant was defined by the Supreme Court as an agent who has come behind enemy lines in secret in order to damage its target country. However, in the wake of the attacks on September 11th, 2001, that definition has been altered irrevocably. Now, this term has been re-appropriated in order to apply to members of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and the Taliban, for the express purpose of conducting the War on Terror.
This radical change has led to a dramatic change in the social and military conventions of American culture. Due to the culture that has been built up around enemy combatants, there is a greater sense of Islamophobia that is present in many citizens, both in America and Europe.
The personal, catastrophic nature of the 9/11 attacks created a great need for vengeance and satisfaction among the American people, making it necessary to provide an easy means to demonize those who were perceived to be responsible. Due to the organic, ill-defined nature of the War on Terror, the term ‘enemy combatant’ has been used to describe anyone who is held on charges of terrorism, as it provides a much harsher, yet easier to define term. It also allows for a greater social acceptance of torture and detainment of captives, especially in regards to such a vague, conceptual villain as ‘terror’. In this essay, we will examine what this redefinition and reappropriation of the term means for the American people, as well as those who are subjected to the status of ‘enemy combatant.’
On September 11, 2011, members of a terrorist organization known as al-Qaida orchestrated a devastating attack on American soil, killing thousands of people and destroying the World Trade Center, one of the country’s largest and most significant landmarks at the time. It sent a powerful message to the American people – that they could be attacked even on their own soil. This led to the beginning of the War on Terror, which was not a war on any specific state or institution, but on the idea of terrorism itself.
As a result of not having one particular group or country to fight against, it became increasingly hard to identify the individuals or groups that were being opposed. Such a distinction becomes much harder when the perpetrators or suspects are captured on friendly soil and detained; there is no country or institution by which to negotiate their possible release in exchange for leniency or something else, making them not quite prisoners of war. As a result, the Bush administration, when beginning to capture these individuals, used the term ‘enemy combatant,’ which has since been used to apply to all suspected members of terrorist groups that are captured.
The phrase ‘enemy combatant’ has been used before in different contexts. In the more general sense, it refers to an agent of an opposing country who goes behind enemy lines, out of uniform, in order to take action against the enemy. This was more specifically defined in the 1924 Supreme Court ruling known as Ex Parte Quirin, which states that:
“…an enemy combatant who without uniform comes secretly through the lines for the purpose of waging war by destruction of life or property [is a] familiar example of belligerents who are generally deemed not to be entitled to the status of prisoners of war...” 1
The detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which came to be known as Gitmo, was established in 2002 for the express purpose of keeping these detainees that were captured in both domestic terror investigations, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the major campaigns in the War on Terror. It is in this place where most of the ‘enemy combatants’, as we know them, are held, and where they are subjected to the treatment that they are given as someone with that status. Their identification as ‘enemy combatants’ frees the U.S.
Government of any responsibility towards their fair treatment as part of the Geneva Convention; this was outlined in memorandums sent in 2002 by John Yoo and Jay. S Bybee, two members of the Department of Justice. 2 Normally, prisoners of war are afforded certain rights, such as fair treatment, protection from harm, and adequate food and accommodations. Also, the two states that are at war are able to communicate with each other in order to possibly negotiate for the release of the prisoner, in exchange for certain conditions. However, in these memos, it was stated that, as the lack of a defined opposing state precluded the need for reciprocity in the treatment of prisoners according to the Geneva Convention, there was no need to hold back in terms of methods of interrogation, and fair treatment did not need to be exerted.
There is an argument that states that, given the fluid, non-regimented nature of terror groups such as al-Qaida, which do not follow the Convention formally, there is no real reason to provide the enemy combatants with those same privileges. Since they are not a member of an opposing recognized state, they cannot be considered ‘prisoners of war,’ and as such have no rights to consistent food, shelter, and accommodations.
The stipulations on torture were also redefined in these memos; the Third Geneva Convention states that prisoners of war cannot be questioned apart from his name, rank, serial number, and date of birth.3 Therefore, torture is not permitted within those guidelines, as that is the only information on which they are allowed to inquire. In the case of the status of terrorist captives as ‘enemy combatants,’ however, it was made implicit that waterboarding and other methods of torture were permitted to take place. This led to substantial controversies about the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, as well as the constitutionality and legality of torture under these guidelines.
However, there are also concerns raised by individuals such as Jeff LeBlanc who, in his article “Victims of Convenience: How Redefining Combatant Status Endangers U.S. Soldiers,” states that:
“By restricting Prisoner of War status beyond conventionally accepted parameters, the United States risks having its own servicemen and women exposed to increased danger if apprehended by the enemy since captured US military personnel may fail to qualify as Prisoners of War under the US’s own new interpretation.”
According to this new view of ‘enemy combatants,’ a U.S. soldier overseas could potentially be captured and given the same inhumane treatment an enemy combatant is afforded here, due to the lack of precedent afforded for this new situation.
The landscape of America immediately following 9/11 was one of paranoia, where national security was increased substantially, and every threat was perceived as a grave one. The events of September 11 “forced Americans into facing the realization that national security involves much more than military strength and manpower.”5 No longer could they rely on just the government’s military might to keep them safe; efforts would have to be made on the part of the citizen, as well as members of internal homeland security, in order to keep the country safe from insurgents. The concept of sleeper cells was brought to the forefront of the American consciousness, as paranoia against Muslims increased to the point where a general distrust and disdain for people of the Muslim faith became the norm instead of the exception. Attacks on Muslim citizens were rampant in the days after 9/11, and despite efforts by Muslim and non-Muslim groups to reassure the rest of the American public that they meant no harm, there still remains a degree of Islamophobia in the country today.
Recent, highly-publicized incidents of Islamophobia include the 2010 controversy over the building of the ‘terror mosque’ near Ground Zero, which was revealed as merely a Muslim cultural center, and the ‘Burn a Quran Day’ advertised by the Rev. Terry Jones in Gainesville, Florida. These incidents are evidence of a massive hatred of Muslims which, while certainly present in the preceding years, was granted unofficial legitimacy by the events of 9/11, which was perpetrated by Muslim extremists. Both of the aforementioned controversies had direct ties to 9/11 – the cultural center was being built near the site of the attacks, and the ‘Burn a Quran Day’ was scheduled to take place on the anniversary of 9/11. Islamophobia increased substantially as a result of these attacks, and events such as these are anticipated to continue for the foreseeable future.
In the wake of one of the most devastating attacks on American territory, the resulting fear and paranoia that came from fighting an enemy that had no home state or country led to a redefinition of the prisoners that would be taken in the course of that fight. Since the Geneva Convention can be interpreted to only apply to conflicts between countries, the status of ‘prisoner of war’ was not applied to those suspected terrorists that were captured and taken to facilities such as Guantanamo Bay. This bending of the rules of war and treatment of prisoners has led to a great debate over the extent to which a government is allowed to mistreat members of opposing forces, whether they come from an officially recognized government or splinter groups not affiliated with any country.
With no organized support system or ability to liaise with the enemy, the status of ‘enemy combatant’ was provided to those prisoners taken from the War on Terror, permitting military personnel to act outside the Geneva Convention. Not only did this allow for the exercising of dramatic methods to extract information, it demonstrated an intense disdain for ‘the other,’ which was evidenced by the rampant Islamophobia that still exists to this day in America. All of these behaviors, most notably the new definition of ‘enemy combatant,’ contribute to an increasingly callous and paranoid outlook on the world at large within American culture. The term itself allows for a distancing and alienation of those prisoners of war from the scrutiny of the American people, making it much easier to turn a blind eye to torture of prisoners and other abuses that took place. While these changes are beginning to take place, it will be a long time before the prejudices that inspired them will go away.
Cheney, E. (2005). Special Project-National Security. Vanderbilt Law Review, 58(5), 1623-1627.
Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
LeBlanc, J. W. (2007). VICTIMS OF CONVENIENCE: HOW REDEFINING COMBATANT
STATUS ENDANGERS U.S. SOLDIERS. Eyes on the ICC, 4(1), 11-22. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Phillips, R. (2010). REMEMBERING ISLAMIC EMPIRES: SPEAKING OF IMPERIALISM
AND ISLAMOPHOBIA. New Formations, (70), 94-112. doi:10.3898/NEWF.70.06.2010