This is not a book readers might expect from the best-selling, award-winning, left-leaning author of Sideshow. In that 1979 book, which did much to establish his reputation, the British writer William Shawcross condemned the US expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia as “a crime”. Over the next 33 years, Shawcross would gradually shift his view of American military policy and the threats facing the West.
In his new book, Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11, and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Shawcross now asserts that special military tribunals and waterboarding are sometimes necessary techniques to fight terrorism, that the international Geneva Conventions on the protection of prisoners of war are outdated, that conditions at the Guantanamo detention centre in Cuba really aren’t that bad, and that George W Bush, the former US president, is actually an unappreciated hero.
Still, if Shawcross is no longer a diehard liberal, he is also not quite a diehard conservative either. While the book lacks original research and resorts to some phony arguments, the author is an intelligent, thoughtful writer who raises important questions (without easy answers) about how to confront a different kind of enemy.
As he writes: “Since 9/11, America’s attempts to balance justice and national security have drawn criticism at home and abroad. Some has been fair but much of it ignores the difficulties and dilemmas that the US government faces in dealing appropriately with terrorists while fulfilling its principal obligation to protect the lives of its own citizens.”
The main thesis of Justice and the Enemy is woven around the story of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Kuwaiti-born so-called “mastermind” of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. A close ally of Osama bin Laden, KSM – as he is often known – recruited, trained, organised and equipped the men who carried out those atrocities. That wasn’t all: he helped finance the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the bombing of a nightclub in Bali in 2002. He also claimed to have helped prepare Richard Reid, the British “shoe bomber” whose attempt to blow up an airplane was thwarted by fellow passengers in 2001. And KSM was almost certainly the person who beheaded the US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.
He was captured in Pakistan in 2003 by Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistani security officers. Held in a series of secret “black site” prisons in foreign countries, he refused to confess anything, taunting his captors and threatening more attacks. He was waterboarded multiple times (the exact number is in dispute), a practice which Shawcross grimly describes: “The prisoner is strapped with his head down on a tilted board; his face is wrapped in damp cloth onto which water is poured for 20 to 40 seconds. This gives the sensation of drowning.” While critics call this torture, the classic defence for such a technique is to say that its use may be the only way to get hardened terrorists to reveal crucial information that may prevent future violence.
Apparently the technique worked on KSM, who spewed out “seminars on Al Qaeda’s structures, personnel, logistics, communications, plans, and ambitions”. He was later formally charged with almost 3,000 counts of murder relating to the September 11 attacks alone and the Bush administration prepared to put him on trial through one of the special military tribunals that it had created for terrorist suspects.
By then Barack Obama had been elected president, and 21 months later, in November 2009, his attorney-general, Eric Holder, announced that KSM’s trial would be conducted through the regular US judicial process. Holder explained that this would “teach the entire world about who we are but also the basic principles of the rule of law”.
If that seemed idealistic, it also seemed appropriate. After all, wasn’t that what America was fighting for – to demonstrate the difference between the terrorists’ fanaticism and western values of due process, tolerance and equal justice for all, regardless of religion or the heinousness of the alleged crime? A trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed under the US legal system would prove that the American way of life had triumphed after all.