Saving Civil Rights

In the campaign against terrorism, collateral damage - the military's euphemism for unintended harm to innocent civilians - can take more than one form.

While the mishaps of US bombs hitting homes or villages in Afghanistan is very rare, they have happened, with some innocent people killed or injured. Leaders in Washington are trying hard to prevent such incidents and the negative publicity that only incites anger against the US.

A similar, but more subtle calculus also should be applied to the US domestic front in this "war." Hundreds of individuals have been detained by federal authorities in an aggressive effort to round up anyone suspected of contact with the Sept. 11 attacks or associated with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

This tactic, like the bombing of terrorist training sites and military depots in Afghanistan, has a compelling logic. With terrorist threats growing louder, the government has a duty to do all it can to thwart further attacks. It's probable that quick police work since Sept. 11 has put in jail some who were poised to commit other acts of terrorism.

But the rapid detention of nearly 700 people under immigration laws or material-witness statutes inevitably has netted many who are innocent of terrorist connections - though they may have overstayed visas or had some contact with the Sept. 11 plotters unrelated to their terrorist plans.

There's some danger of a sort of collateral damage here, too. In a few cases, detention mainly has been an inconvenience, though a scary one. In others, however, the damage may have gone further. Though the government has put a clamp of secrecy on the detainees' cases, stories are coming out about individuals, later released, being confined in barren isolation cells, mistreated by jailers, or, in one case, allegedly brutalized by other prisoners.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said this week there has been no widespread abuse of detainees. That may be true. But cases of ignored religious dietary needs and group incarceration with common criminals continue to surface, tarnishing American justice.

The FBI and other federal agents have good reason to seek out and hold people who may have some link to terrorists. With the new antiterrorism laws going through Congress, they'll soon have expanded power to do so. But they also have good reason to be sure the treatment of those detained is humane. And they need to be more forthcoming about the types of people who have been detained.

This kind of collateral damage, like the air-war kind, not only hurts the people directly involved. It can hurt the reputation and integrity of the United States, too.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.