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[First published as an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Oct. 5, 2001, under the title "... Or a Court Case?"]

By Robert Wright

The Taliban and President Bush don't see eye to eye on many issues, but they do have one attitude in common: Neither has shown much enthusiasm for having Osama bin Laden turned over to the United States. President Bush said as much in his Sept. 20 address to Congress. To avoid war, he declared, the Taliban must not only surrender bin Laden and other terrorists but close bin Laden's training camps -- and let Americans enter Afghanistan and inspect them. Given that these camps had already been deserted, and could easily be reconstituted elsewhere, the only reason to include this last humiliating demand was as a deal breaker.

You can't really blame Bush for wanting bin Laden dead, not alive. Imagine the ordeal of putting him on trial in the United States. For months on end, terrorists would feel special ardor for attacking America, and some would probably succeed.

The United States may dodge this particular bullet by killing bin Laden, but if indeed the "war" on terrorism is as long and multifaceted as advertised, sooner or later we'll face the grim prospect: long trials of terrorists on American soil -- an open invitation to more terrorism on American soil.

It's enough to make you question the Bush administration's hostility toward the 1998 treaty to establish an International Criminal Court, which the United States has signed but not ratified. Having bin Laden and/or his cronies tried in the Hague, by a non-American judge, would reduce the terrorist backlash -- or at least divert the backlash. Life in the Netherlands might become slightly more precarious, as terrorists fixed their gaze on The Hague. And so might life in whatever nation the judge hailed from. But these nations' losses would be America's gain.

Does this sound cynical? Does it sound antithetical to the mushy altruism and naive idealism you associate with one-worldish schemes such as the International Criminal Court? Then you suffer from a common misconception about one-worldism. The case for carrying some functions of governance to the global level typically rests on simple national self-interest. Why should the United States singlehandedly shoulder the costs of bringing terrorists to justice when terrorism is a threat to all civilized nations? Why should the United States absorb most of the hatred of radical Islam, when other nations share the fruits of the modern global economy that helps foment the hatred?

Alas, this brazen appeal to national self-interest is not enough to impress hard-core realpolitikers. An international court may sound nice, they say, but how are you going to bring culprits to justice? Send an arrest warrant to Osama bin Laden's mother and ask her to forward it?

One-worlders have two replies. The first is that the evolution of supranational governance -- of accords on the environment, arms control, criminal justice, etc. -- is a young and slow process. Will it take decades for all nations to grant an international court jurisdiction, so that there would be no place on Earth for a terrorist to hide? Probably. But if there's one message that was clearly delivered on Sept. 11, it's that we're in a decades-long struggle, and we'd better learn to think long-term.

The second reply is that even in the short term, nabbing terrorists would often be possible. The Taliban, however reluctant to hand over bin Laden, seem increasingly willing to do so -- and would certainly rather turn him over to an international court than to the United States.

The realpolitikers have two replies of their own.

First: Note that it's taken military might, not a court order, to get the Taliban in a mood to deal. True enough -- and that may be the case for years to come, until the international justice system matures. Still, I'd rather amass troops than actually use them, other things being equal.

Second: If bin Laden is handed over, then we'll have missed our chance to uproot the Taliban regime. Also true. But of course, if the Taliban were now willing to hand over terrorists, then much of the rationale for uprooting them would be gone.

And look at what would be saved by getting bin Laden sans war. The Bush administration's surprisingly long delay before striking rests partly on its growing awareness of the massive downside of military action. Among the valid worries: inviting immediate terrorist retaliation, swelling the ranks of tomorrow's terrorists and delivering Pakistan, a nuclear nation, to the control of Islamic radicals. These risks -- already greatly elevated by military maneuvering -- could be dampened if the Bush administration considered bin Laden's live capture a palatable option.

Terrorism per se doesn't come under the International Criminal Court's auspices, but there's little if any doubt that the Sept. 11 atrocities amount to a "crime against humanity" as defined by the ICC treaty.

And if the post-Sept. 11 Bush administration would like smaller-scale terrorism to be placed under the court's rubric, the United States probably has enough negotiating power to get it. But first the administration would have to reverse itself and acknowledge something that this crisis has already forced it to acknowledge in other realms: The subtly self-interested logic of international cooperation.

The writer is a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny."