Tuesday, April 29, 2008


In a discussion-group recently, we read Poems From Guantanamo, edited by Marc Falkoff. As you might guess from the title, the poems were written by prisoners at Guantanamo and later translated into English. Some of the poems are extraordinarily moving--as are the brief narratives about each writer. Some of the men have been released--but only after years of imprisonment and torture; in many cases they were imprisoned and tortured simply because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time in Afghanistan--and that is all. Imprisoned indefinitely, psychologically and physically tortured, by Americans. Erik Saar, a former interrogator, has written a book about some of what has gone on there. Inside the Wire, it's called.

But what if some of the prisoners really were terrorists? A legitimate question. An answer: If you (the American government) have evidence of this terrorism, then present it to a judge and provide the defendant with an attorney. Go to trial. If you have "the goods," then prove it. Ah, but the men aren't subject to our laws. They're "enemy combatants" at "Guantanamo." So? If we indeed believe in inalienable rights, then we should be able to demonstrate enough consistency not to a) torture, b) imprison somebody indefinitely, without habeas corpus and without trial or some other legitimate judicial review. But they're POWs. Nonsense. Even Orwellian Bush won't go that far. He calls them "detainees." Rights are either inalienable or they're not.

What made Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld believe torture is not only acceptable but should be routine? What makes them believe they have the right to imprison people arbitrarily and indefinitely? What makes them believe it's all right to tap phone-wires without a warrant? Bush is close to having absolute power, and we know the quotation about that.

Why aren't Clinton, McCain, and Obama talking about torture and Guantanamo and the war in Iraq and eroded civil liberties every day? Why aren't they asked questions about these topics--every day? Why is torture, especially, "under the radar"?

One student in the discussion group speculated that great numbers of Americans were essentially (and figuratively) paralyzed--waiting out the Bush years, hoping for a change, but feeling powerless in the meantime. She wasn't offering this as an excuse, merely as a diagnosis.

It's not a discussion-group in which we all agree. We often agree to disagree about the war and whether/when to get out of there. But after reading and discussing the Guantanamo poems, no one seemed to want to argue, and a different kind of silence settled on us. It wasn't the silence of not knowing what to say, or the silence of being afraid to start (another) argument, or the silence of boredom or weariness. It was the silence of being deeply moved by the condition of strangers in a prison built by the U.S. And no, it wasn't the silence of the naive. Pick a robust percentage of men at Guantanamo whom you think are truly guilt of something terrible. Let's say 50 per cent, for the sake of argument. Now that we've picked the percentage, I have to say: It doesn't matter. If the U.S. has evidence of these terrible things, then bring the men to trial, soon and fairly, and in the meantime, don't torture them. Don't torture. If there's no evidence, let them go. "It's not that simple." Really?

In fact, it's not that simple, as Falkoff, who represents Yemeni men, whom the evidence suggests are guilty of nothing, suggests. He says that if the men were brought to trial, much of the "evidence" might well be thrown out because it was "gathered" via torture. That is, because of another of Bush's follies, it's "not that simple" now for the U.S.

I'm extremely reticent to use the word "evil" seriously. It's a powerful word. But I look at things in Iraq and Guantanamo for which Bush is responsible, and I believe it's legitimate to ask whether he, Cheney, Gonzalez, and Rumsfeld, and the torturers, are evil. Did something evil happen on 9/11, too? Of course. What happened demanded many kinds of responses. Among the responses should have been this one: Let's not justify whatever ends we think we want in reaction to 9/11 by practicing means we know are wrong.

I wrote to my senator, again, about Guantanamo. No answer yet. I joined Amnesty International, strictly because of Guantanamo, but then someone told me there is a similar agency that was arguably more effective that AI. I talk and write to others about the topic. But mostly I feel the paralysis the student astutely diagnosed. The U.S. has lost its way in a variety of areas: education, the deficit, the economy, education, veterans' affairs, the environment. It's also lost its way badly at Guantanamo, and I don't understand why journalists and politicians don't make each other, indirectly, talk about it all the time.

One shard of good news, from a colleague who works with the ACLU: the ACLU is organizing a group of experience attorneys in the event the "detainees" get to trial--in military court (that's the bad news), where hearsay evidence is admissible. Of course, some will place the ACLU on the left-wing fringe for such action. That's right, the fringe: out there with habeas corpus, search warrants, the Geneva convention, and not making unprovoked war--out where water-boarding is what it is, torture. Out where the U.S. had some self-respect. Something more is being "detained" at Guantanamo than men from the Middle East. Bush's, and thus the U.S.'s, basic sense of right and wrong is being detained there, too, day after day.

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