Saturday, June 06, 2009

A really naive anti-terror idea

As a kid, I was a serial rereader of a children's version of the Odyssey. I seem to remember feeling some anxiety about Odysseus' method of converting the sorceress Circe, who had turned all his men into swine, into an enduring ally. The God Hermes accosts Odysseus en route to Circe's house and gives him this plan of action:

Here, take this potent herb, and go to the house of Circe, and it shall ward off from thy head the evil day. And I will tell thee all the baneful wiles of Circe. She will mix thee a potion, and cast drugs into the food; but even so she shall not be able to bewitch thee, for the potent herb that I shall give thee will not suffer it. And I will tell thee all. When Circe shall smite thee with her long wand, then do thou draw thy sharp sword from beside thy thigh, and rush upon Circe, as though thou wouldst slay her. And she will be seized with fear, and will bid thee lie with her. Then do not thou thereafter refuse the couch of the goddess, that she may set free thy comrades, and give entertainment to thee. But bid her swear a great oath by the blessed gods, that she will not plot against thee any fresh mischief to thy hurt, lest when she has thee stripped she may render thee a weakling and unmanned.’
It was hard for a 20th century eight year-old to grasp how an oath could be a reliable defense against rooted malice. I seem to remember telling myself that extracting an oath would work best on an immortal -- you can't doubt the enforcement power of the gods if you are one. But in Homer, humans also enjoin other humans to swear similar oaths that they will do no harm - for example, the slave Eumaeus recounts how in his childhood his nurse, plotting with a Phoenician merchant to sell him into slavery, made the merchant swear an oath not to harm her before accepting an offer to travel with him to see the house of her parents (from which she had herself been sold into slavery). Plainly, she felt that an oath would have force even from a person with whom she was plotting treachery.

Oaths are in fact perhaps the oldest human enforcement mechanism. One that just broke into the news is a voluntary ethics oath developed this spring by an Harvard MBA student and signed by over 400 Harvard Business School grads this year.

More than once, while reading about the difficulties and dangers of determining which Guantanamo detainees should be freed, and the Pentagon's highly disputed claims that some 14% of freed detainees have "rejoined the fight," it's occured to me that this is a population that might be particularly disposed to take an oath seriously.

Suppose those detainees against whom there is no compelling evidence of terrorist activity or membership in terrorist groups were induced to swear in the name of Allah to a Muslim cleric whose authority they were bound to respect that they would renounce violence and do no harm to any person on the basis of nationality, creed or any other group identity? Such an oath would not be a stand-alone defense, but rather a kind of insurance policy taken out on those slated to be freed, as two thirds of Guantanamo detainees already have been.

Under criminal law, where a suspect is presumed innocent until proven guilty, oaths would have no place. Sworn voluntarily, however, as an inducement to countries that are considering providing asylum for detainees, oaths might have a place. Prisoners of war, too, have sometimes been required to take oaths as a condition of release - for example, in the U.S. Civil War. Guantanamo detainees' status is ambiguous; whether they should be treated as criminal suspects or prisoners of war, or accorded some variant of the in-between status of created by the Bush Administration under the 'enemy combatant' rubric remains a contested issue.

It may be that militant Islamists have some doctrine releasing them from obligation to oaths coerced by infidels and administered by anyone serving them--particularly in light of the various insults to Islam that were part of "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Still, if clerics with the right credentials could be recruited to administer such oaths, might they have some effect with at least some detainees?

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