Sometimes when I've been too critical of my children, I realize that, for their own emotional well-being, they tune me out. When I notice that glazed look, I jump to revise how and what I say. After all, some of my messages are essential to their safety and well-being. I need to make sure they can hear me.
As a nation, I wonder if we hear so much bad news, so many examples of having lost our way morally, ethically and culturally, that we numb ourselves to painful truths. An example of this is a new book, "Inside the Wire," by Erik Saar and Viveca Novak, about Army Sgt. Saar's experiences as a military intelligence officer at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
As I read Saar's account of abuses, counterproductive interrogation practices and knowing disregard for Geneva Conventions, I wondered why this nation of morally attuned patriots is not fighting mad. There was a time when even a whisper of such abuse conducted in our name evoked outrage. But after revelations of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, have we normalized morally appalling behavior? Are we intentionally ignoring military horror stories because we can't listen anymore?
Saar's story is one of transformation: a conservative soldier from a family military tradition and deeply held religious faith who committed himself to fight terrorism. It's a personal tale of his hopes that his military service would help him heal from a painful divorce. And it's a description of his struggle to reconcile the treatment of detainees that he saw at Guantanamo Bay with his beliefs about America's ideals, and why he finally decided to uphold those ideals by talking about his experiences.
As a linguist and intelligence officer, Saar worked on various teams in Guantanamo Bay and saw different aspects of the camp. He quickly saw that there was something badly wrong with its military command structure, his first team's preparedness to deal with Muslim detainees, its utter lack of esprit de corps, and the camp's failure to correct its own dysfunctions.
As Saar translated, he heard countless detainees' complaints about not knowing charges against them, being unable to talk with lawyers or communicate with families, of physical and emotional abuses, which he also witnessed. Abuses became more severe and frequent over the months he was there, as personnel became frustrated by their failures to gain information. Intelligence agencies worked badly together, and military interrogations were routinely recognized by staff as pointless.
Many detainees' accounts of innocence, like having been picked up by bounty hunters in Afghanistan, were convincing enough that Saar began to doubt the moral legitimacy of holding many of the detainees and the value of any information being wrested from them. Especially, he realized that the complete failure to understand the power of Islamic faith to sustain prisoners was dooming the camp's efforts and strengthening the urge for jihad against our country.
Others have raised concerns about the failures of intelligence. But Saar's account illustrates the long road that many Americans must travel to accept truths about how far our nation's military has fallen during this global war on terror from the ideals we thought defined our nation. The limited and badly sanitized news about this detention camp (called so because to call it a prison would require its occupants to be charged with crimes and receive protection of the Geneva Conventions) obstruct that understanding.
When the book was published last week, a reactionary right-wing campaign to discredit Saar began. It's not surprising, given his detailed account of the camp's extreme dysfunction. Of course some don't want to hear the bad news. But it's important to listen.
Guantanamo Bay has been less a sophisticated intelligence recovery site than it has a breeding ground of intense, faith-reinforced hatred of our country. The abusive and inept handling of detainees has furthered our nation's vulnerability to Islamic extremists. Do we really want to pretend that something so dangerous is not happening?
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.
© 2005 Capital Times