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Crime stoppers

IN BILLY WILDER'S 1953 film, Stalag 17, the American prisoners of war gather around the "Geneva man" when he comes to visit their barracks. They angrily tell him that they want to know what has become of a recently arrived lieutenant, who was taken away a little while earlier by the Germans. He turns to the German officer and demands to see the lieutenant, and, of course, because the Geneva man is a representative of the Red Cross, the Nazis comply. The lieutenant is OK. The other American prisoners go back to reading their mail from home.

Of course, the film is fiction. Certainly the Germans weren't always so fastidious about the rules of war -- especially on the Eastern Front. But contrast that picture with the one slowly coming into focus today.

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The Bush administration, we now know, has prepared legal memos on ways to evade restrictions on torture as spelled out in the Geneva Conventions. It is also refusing to hand them over to Congress, on the grounds that revealing U.S. interrogation policies would be helpful to future detainees. Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, admits that the army intentionally hid an Iraqi prisoner from the Red Cross, to keep the Geneva man from poking around in American business. A new report by a lawyers' group called Human Rights First suggests that there are probably thousands of prisoners secretly held in American custody, in acknowledged and unacknowledged detention facilities in as many as seven different countries. They are not getting mail from home.

This is not a gray area of the law. This is wrong.

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It is wrong because the United States has signed treaties saying it's wrong. It is wrong because the United States should have nothing to hide. It is wrong because secret detentions lead inevitably to abuse and torture. It is wrong because administration assertions that it will do the right thing cannot be trusted -- not with the burgeoning scandal over prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. It is wrong because it flies in the face of those qualities of fairness and decency about which Americans are rightly proud. It is wrong because it will turn the world against the United States.

Friday's news about the beheading of an American in Saudi Arabia changes nothing. The viciousness of terrorists or criminals doesn't call for a like response; it underscores the difference between them and us.

What else are we fighting to uphold? On Thursday, the world learned that an American civilian killed an Afghan during an interrogation. A year later, that interrogator has, at least, been indicted. But who did this American civilian believe he was working for? For us, that's who. Send in the Geneva man.


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