Thursday, March 24, 2005

Murdering Prisoners

Please read Thomas Friedman's column in the New York Times today. He is, justifiably, outraged by the deaths of at least twenty-six prisoners in American custody, apparently due to torture. He writes:

Yes, I know war is hell and ugliness abounds in every corner. I also understand that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, we are up against a vicious enemy, which, if it had the power, would do great harm to our country. You do not deal with such people with kid gloves. But killing prisoners of war, presumably in the act of torture, is an inexcusable outrage. The fact that Congress has just shrugged this off, and no senior official or officer has been fired, is a travesty. This administration is for "ownership" of everything except responsibility.

It is time for the "culture of life" coalition that brought Congress into session on Palm Sunday to legislate on behalf of Terri Schiavo to address the matter of torturing prisoners to death. Distinctions between the guilty and the innocent, often noted when the subject is the death penalty, are irrelevant here. None of those prisoners killed has been found guilty of anything other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Apparently when President Bush said yesterday that government "must err on the side of life," he intended to exempt the hundreds of Muslim men who have been swept up by the American military since 2001.

Killing prisoners has been regarded as murder for centuries. In the confusion of battle at Agincourt, King Henry V ordered the killing of French prisoners merely as an expedient. Shakespeare makes the order a matter of reprisal after the French killing of the English boys attending the camp, but still condemns it. Gower, in Henry V, Act IV, Scene vii, says,

'Tis certain there's not a boy left alive; and the cowardly rascals that ran from the battle ha' done this slaughter: besides, they have burned and carried away all that was in the king's tent; wherefore the king, most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a gallant king!

We are to understand the commentary as ironic. "O, 'tis a gallant king!" is uttered with a sneer by every Gower who understands his role. Neither Shakespeare nor Holinshed, the chronicler on whom he relied for his material, considered the killing of prisoners to be justifiable.

It is no more justifiable today.