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Judgment at Guantanamo: What Will We Learn?

A few weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder reversed himself, announcing that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of the September 11th attacks, would be tried at Guantanamo Bay, after all.

Well, I have had some strong disagreements with Holder, most recently over the decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court, but I’m glad he came to his senses this time. The idea that Muhammad could have been safely and reasonably tried in a federal court in New York City was absurd: the proceedings would have been a circus.

But our legal system isn’t out of the woods, yet.

An obvious parallel to the upcoming trial in Guantanamo is the Nuremburg trial conducted after the defeat of the Third Reich. There, while the whole world watched, the Allies conducted a very dignified and responsible trial of the Nazi war criminals.  It’s one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of Western civilization.

Unfortunately, a global audience is all the two events will have in common. In 1945, people really believed there was a knowable universal moral law that reflected the consensus and judgment of every civilized nation through human history.

Today, there is hardly a campus in America today where relativism is not taught: it is a matter of, well, faith that all ideas are equal, that truth claims are mere preferences, and that there is no objective moral order.

This attitude of relativism has pervaded the culture.  We see it in every walk of life.  It has totally redefined tolerance.  Tolerance no longer means listening respectfully to other points of view, but, instead, has become a new covenant. The terms of this covenant are summed up nicely by Del Tackett in the Truth Project: I won’t tell you what not to do with your life if you don’t tell me what not to do with mine.

That brings me to quandary that will be on display at Guantanamo: how are the prosecutors going to handle this case at Guantanamo Bay?  They do not have the cultural consensus behind them that the prosecutors did at Nuremburg.  Where is the authority for their prosecution?  The authority that famously gave the chief American prosecutor Robert Jackson the force to obtain those convictions which brought those very evil men to justice.

I don’t doubt that prosecutors will be able to obtain a conviction -- they undoubtedly will. What I doubt is that, unlike Nuremburg, we won’t learn anything from the experience. Nuremberg taught us that the defense “I was just following orders” doesn’t absolve you from moral responsibility for the heinous actions you commit. It established the principle that there is an enduring, unchanging absolute moral law that people and nations are bound to follow.

In Guantanamo, none of these kinds of lessons will be learned because we are culturally incapable of learning them. Like defendants at the World Court in the Hague, Muhammad will probably challenge the tribunal’s authority to judge and him and, given the cultural moment, he will have a point.

Combating this cultural moment -- this age of relativism -- is the goal of the new DVD series we’ve just released called “Doing the Right Thing.” It’s about the universal moral law, which is the basis for ethical behavior and guarantees the human rights that made it possible to try Nazi war criminals. It’s the law our elites insist on denying, even as they proceed as if it were true.

This article published on April 21, 2011.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.


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