Sending Shameful Signals
"No question Guantanamo sends, you know, a signal," President Bush said last week. ``It provides an excuse, for example, to say the United States is not upholding the values that they're trying to encourage other countries to adhere to." This frank admission is anomalous, of course, because President Bush intends to maintain the prison complex in Cuba indefinitely. And every day that he does so, the signal sent grows louder.
It didn't take the recent suicides of three detainees to make known Guantanamo's character as a center of human-rights violations. A sorry list of accusations and criticisms has besmirched the place, including charges of deliberate insult to the religion of Muslims and interrogation practices that are ``tantamount to torture." Tony Blair and Kofi Annan have called for its closure, and last week the European Parliament passed a resolution doing the same. This week, President Bush is likely to face criticism on the question at the summit meeting in Vienna. Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, are at Guantanamo to learn more about the three suicides, which one US official characterized as ``acts of asymmetric warfare." The US Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, a case involving questions of detainee rights at Guantanamo and the powers of military commissions to try terror suspects held there.
But all of this unfolds in the context identified by President Bush himself -- that of ``values" represented by this astounding American prison. How might perceptions of the United States be different today, especially in Arab and Muslim worlds, if the hundreds of prisoners captured in Afghanistan in 2001 had been treated with scrupulous adherence to the highest standards of international law; if they had been provided lawyers, promptly charged, and brought to public trials -- all showing that the United States treats even its purported enemies as persons with rights, worthy of due process? Had we followed such a course, our nation would have put its best values on display, a not incidental rebuttal to the demonizing of America as a great Satan. But such a course would have been more than propaganda. It would have been a defining act, proof that we are the good and exceptional people we think we are.
Just such a thing happened before. After World War II, many Allied leaders, led by Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, assumed that captured Nazis, whose war crimes were evident, should be summarily executed. But others, led especially by US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, understood the importance of dealing with the major criminals according to scrupulous legal procedures. The result was the Nuremberg Tribunals, where the rights of defendants, even those defendants, were affirmed. Those trials, lasting from 1945 to 1949, involving more than 200 accused war criminals, demonstrated the values for which the United States had just fought the brutal war. More than that: In a recovery from brutality, the Nuremberg trials rescued those values.
The opposite has been occurring in Guantanamo Bay. Prisoners were taken there in the first place in an obvious end run around the jurisdiction of courts inside the United States, a blatant statement that traditional legal procedures would not apply. (The US military base itself is a blatant statement that, concerning Cuba, normal requirements of national sovereignty do not apply.) Such cynical exceptionalism was reinforced when the captured men were categorized as ``enemy combatants" instead of ``prisoners of war," a ploy to dodge standards set by the Geneva Accords of 1949 (which themselves came out of the spirit reflected at Nuremberg). Little thought seems to have been given even now to the consequences for Americans when they are captured in future conflicts by enemies who will surely cite Guantanamo as precedent for methods tantamount to torture.
Guantanamo defenders define the enterprise as an exercise in intelligence gathering, but it has been years since any of those prisoners could have provided meaningful information about enemy intentions or capacity. Something else accounts for this cruelty, this illegality. Instead of the dignity of Nuremberg, it evokes the shame of the World War II incarceration of Japanese-Americans. Racial hatred, revenge, a blind belief in toughness -- these are the values that America is ``signaling" in Cuba. After 9/11, we were determined that our enemies would not wound us again. They did not have to. We have wounded ourselves -- nowhere more destructively than at Guantanamo. The time is long past for the disgraceful American prison to be closed. Likewise the imperial base itself.
© 2006 The Boston Globe