The Gitmo Scapegoats

The Thinker by Rodin

At Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, we have been housing “detainees”, most of who were captured in Iraq or Afghanistan, for as much as three and a half years. Most were caught in a battle area without a uniform so they were not granted prisoner of war status. Instead, they have been shuffled into a legal limbo for which there appears to be no exit.

Some of these detainees may very well be terrorists. Many claim not to be. However, it does not seem to matter to our government. They have become persona non grata devoid of any rights or privileges, with no right to a trial or even (some allege) a fair hearing. (If it were not bad enough to do this to non-citizens, a court recently affirmed the president’s right to do it to an American citizen during a time of war too.) Since the War on Terrorism promises to last longer than the War on Drugs, these detainees could well spend the rest of their lives in the cells at Gitmo.

Some have reached the breaking point. At least 128 of them are on a hunger strike, and more seem to be joining the ranks every day. Some have been forcibly removed to the infirmary where they are being kept alive through forced feedings. The hunger strike is now on its fifth week. If not for the forced feedings, it is likely that some of these detainees would now be dead.

I do not know how any American, no matter how patriotic, can read these stories and not feel unsettled and deeply disturbed. These detentions may be legal under our bizarrely interpreted rules of engagement, but they are unquestionably inhuman and immoral. The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, is very clear:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment… Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law… Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Those guilty of crimes deserve to be punished. Those innocent deserve to be free. Nevertheless, no one, not even someone we suspect to be our worst enemy, deserves to be held in prison forever with their ultimate fate unknown. Basic human decency tells us this is true, and the United Nations, which speaks for all humanity, calls us to account.

Perhaps I would be more accommodating to our president if I had some indication that these men were truly dangerous and bent on destroying America. Who can say? No one seems to be in any rush to bring forth evidence against these men. And naturally our president is wholly indifferent to their fate. He says he is protecting America. If in the process he spoils a few perfectly good apples, well that’s the breaks. Nevertheless, when you read stories like this, then even the most rabidly patriotic among us must have some doubts.

A masked teenager in an Iraqi army uniform walked slowly through a crowd of 400 detainees captured Monday, studying each face and rendering his verdict with a simple hand gesture, like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of gladiators.

A thumb pointed down meant the suspect was not thought to be an insurgent and would be released by U.S. soldiers. A thumb pointed up meant a man would be removed from the concertina wire-encased pen, handcuffed with tape or plastic ties and taken by truck to a military base to be interrogated.

Feeling the heat, the military has decided that some of the detainees can go back to their country, provided their host countries put them in local prisons. Perhaps this is an improvement. The medical care at Gitmo may be better but friends and relatives may come by the prison to say hello. Now these detainees live thousands of miles from what they know as home, cut off from their culture, in a foreign climate, caged, controlled, ceaselessly monitored and conveniently out of the public eye.

About a fourth of the prisoners at Guantanamo have said, “Enough.” Give them a fair hearing or they will choose death. Others allege brutality by the guards and interrogators. Some claim that prisoners are segregated based on how well they cooperate with interrogators. Those in orange jumpsuits are considered uncooperative and they claim are singled out for discipline tantamount to torture.

However, apparently we cannot even give them the dignity of choosing their own permanent exit from their hellish imprisonment. So that we will not bear the stain of their deaths, we will keep them force fed against their will. In their case, we will not even recognize their human right to have control over their own body. In effect, these detainees have been relegated to a legal status of something less than human.

What a sorry and sick situation. I doubt more than a handful of these people are true terrorists. They may have been part of the Taliban and were fighting what they saw as the illegal occupation of their country. That by itself does not mean they terrorized other people. Perhaps some were even affiliated with al Qaeda, but it is unlikely that any one of them directly helped in the attacks on September 11th.

In effect, the detainees at Guantanamo Bay have become our country’s scapegoats. Unable or unwilling to capture Osama bin Laden, we pick people who may be vaguely associated with him instead. I am reminded of William James’s book, The Moral Philosopher where he envisioned:

Millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specified and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

That is how the situation at Gitmo feels to me. It preys on my conscience. What we are doing there feels deeply evil and wrong, as evil as anything these people would do to us. I wish we had leaders who felt similarly. However, apparently I must be in the minority. Our president does not care. In fact, he feels great about what he is doing, although the evidence suggests it is just encouraging more terrorists to lash out against us. My two Republican senators and my Republican congressional representative do not seem to care. Moreover, for many Americans, anyone in Gitmo is by inference guilty of hating America anyhow, and we are being oh so humane just by keeping them alive.

What this repugnant situation needs is prompt resolution. Military tribunals strike me as reprehensible, but at least it might amount to some sense of closure for these detainees. Being left for forgotten and perpetually in legal limbo is perhaps the cruelest fate we can inflict on anyone. Better to be dead than to be alive but not to live.

I am afraid it will take a new administration and a new congress to change the situation. I hope that when resolution finally arrives there is something resembling human beings left in the inhabitants of these cells at Gitmo. In addition, I hope that whether they are innocent or guilty, when it is all over these detainees will have the strength to forgive us.