There was a grim irony in the coincidence: On the very day that the U.S. Supreme Court issued its rulings on the treatment of enemy combatants, Al Jazeera broadcast a videotape that it said showed a captured American soldier being executed by Iraqi insurgents.
Army Pfc. Keith M. Maupin, 20, did not get an opportunity to file a petition with a judge asking that his captors provide good reasons for holding him. He did not get to complain to the Red Cross about the conditions in his cell. Nor, as far as we know, was he photographed in the buff, threatened with electrocution or menaced with guard dogs. Assuming the report is accurate, he was simply shot in the back of the head and tossed into a shallow grave.
Where's the ACLU to protest this lack of due process? Where's the outrage of the "international community"? Why isn't Michael Moore making a film about Pfc. Maupin, or about captured Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, 24, who could join the growing list of Americans beheaded by our fanatical foes?
This is not meant to suggest that the Supreme Court decisions were necessarily wrong, or that we should treat our captives the way Maupin was treated. The high court rulings probably were an inevitable response to the Bush administration's highhanded unilateralism.
By promulgating one-sided detainee rules on his own, without seeking Congress' consent, President Bush practically invited the justices to step in and create a more balanced process. But Maupin's case does suggest an inherent naivete in how we think about these matters.
The essence of the U.S. position on enemy captives is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Geneva Convention, that supreme product of Western rationalism, is an attempt to codify this concept into international law. The problem is that it is essentially unenforceable; it binds only those inclined to follow its principles anyway. For most of the world, the Western legal tradition is utterly alien; it simply doesn't apply.
Look at how American POWs have fared since 1941. Just about the only enemies who played by the rules were the Italians and Germans during World War II. The Nazis reserved their barbarism for Jews, Russians, Poles and other "subhumans." Captured Americans and British were regarded as fellow soldiers and Aryans and were treated accordingly. There were some abuses, of course, but on the whole conditions in the stalags were tolerable. Only 1% of American POWS in Europe died in captivity.
The contrast with the Japanese approach couldn't be greater. For the samurai, who believed nothing was more dishonorable than surrender, POWs forfeited their humanity. The Americans and Filipinos who gave up on Corregidor in 1942 were sent on the infamous Bataan Death March. The sick, hungry, exhausted men were driven mercilessly. Those who fell out of line were clubbed, bayoneted or beheaded. When an officer refused to give up his wedding ring, his finger was hacked off. Nearly 45% of all U.S. POWs in the Pacific did not return alive.
Americans captured in the Korean and Vietnam wars fared just as poorly. The North Koreans and their Chinese allies subjected POWs not only to physical abuse but also communist brainwashing. Fewer than 50% got home alive. Later, North Vietnamese guards freely tortured captured fliers to force them to make public statements denouncing their country. Accounts of what John McCain, James Stockdale and other heroes went through in the "Hanoi Hilton" still make for harrowing reading.
The 23 Americans captured by Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1991 Persian Gulf War got similar treatment but for a much briefer time. Held in a secret police prison, they were denied food and medical care and given savage beatings. A female officer was sexually assaulted. "I can tell you that for about 20 minutes of my captivity, they played by the Geneva Convention," Marine Col. Cliff Acree told ABC News. "The rest of the time, they did not."
Americans have been far from blameless in their own handling of enemy prisoners. There have been notorious excesses from the Confederacy's Andersonville prison to Abu Ghraib. But there is no question that the U.S. military has treated enemy captives much better, on the whole, than ours have been treated. However bad things got at Abu Ghraib, it was nothing compared with the beheadings of Nicholas Berg, Paul Johnson and Daniel Pearl.
By all means, let's retain the moral high ground by treating our captives humanely. Give them the right of judicial appeal. Allow them to complain to the Red Cross. Hand them cozy slippers and fluffy robes. Just don't expect our enemies to reciprocate our kindness.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.