From Volume 75, Number 6 (September 2002)
In response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the chorus of those arguing that international law cannot serve as an effective tool in the fight against terrorism has grown. In fact, one might say that September 11 has swelled the ranks of international relations realists, who view international law primarily as a cover for strategic interests and thereby as lacking any independent bite. According to this view, for the United States to comply with the letter of international law would be to don a straight-jacket that would hamper efforts to protect national and international security. Instead, because of the serious nature of the threat, ordinary rules should be bent, if acknowledged at all. This type of thinking has even spilled over into domestic law. Anyone who harps too much on the need for law at best is naive and at worst aids and abets terrorists.
This resurgent realism with respect to international law has taken several forms. Some have argued that the United States need not pay overly precise attention to international law in its military response to the attacks. Others have suggested that the detention of captured terrorism suspects is not, or should not be, governed by international law. And still others have suggested that the United States need not comply with the principles established under international law in prosecuting individual terrorists. I will focus here on the latter two arguments.