The Gulag Americano

Whenever I'm grasping for perspective amid the creeping fascism of the present moment, I reach for the autobiography of someone who struggled to live a meaningful life under historical circumstances worse than mine.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," which very personally details the soul-crushing oppression Stalin imposed across the Soviet Union, does the trick.

If just for the sheer power and passion of the prose, I suggest you put it on your summer reading list, though what compelled me to read it wasn't a desire to revel in first-rate writing. I'm reading it because -- well -- this is post 9/11 America, where torture as official policy is countenanced by a so-called freedom-loving people, the majority of whom dare call themselves "Christians." In journalism, "objectivity" has its place. But to remain detached in the face of torture is lose one's humanity.

The 10-minute video released last week showing a 16-year-old Omar Khadr weeping, calling for his mommy, as he is questioned by clearly sadistic Canadian intelligence agents in 2003, provides the first glimpse of interrogations inside the Guantanamo military prison.

Still imprisoned as an "enemy combatant" five years later in the Gulag Americano on the island of Cuba, the video ought to send shivers down the spine of any moral being on the planet.

Solzhenitsyn's bone-chilling description of being arrested in the name of "state security" comes to mind. "Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightening which has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slip into insanity? The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: 'You are under arrest...'"

"'Resistance! Why didn't you resist?' Today those who have continued to live on in comfort scold those who suffered. Yes, resistance should have begun right there, at the moment of the arrest itself. But it did not begin. And so they are leading you..."

Where are we being led?

Lisa Hajjar, law professor UC Santa Barbara, has an answer. "The fact that the U.S. has adopted a policy of torture is now beyond dispute, as is the fact that hundreds, if not thousands of totally innocent people have been subjected to officially sanctioned torture and abuse."

The morally bankrupt and intellectually dishonest defense put forward by administration apologists is that if "errors" were made, it was done with "good intentions," and in some cases has provided valuable information.

However, "people knowledgeable about the interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah...have said that any information they provided came during non-coercive interrogations, Hajjar counters. "But because they were tortured, the use of this information for their prosecutions becomes problematic."

To understand how we got here, Hajjar notes, it's important to appreciate that the Bush administration goal has been to roll back the legal constraints on the executive branch put in place in the wake of Watergate. Another part of the project is "to repudiate international law as ostensibly 'un-American.' Torture is a crime. Now is the time for 'law and order' types to 'get tough on crime.'"

History News Network editor Rick Shenkman backs that up in even more blunt terms. "Despite Watergate, Republicans have never given up their belief in an imperial presidency. If the president does something, it's not illegal, was Nixon's line of defense."

"President Bush violated the law numerous times during his presidency without once expressing remorse at having done so," Shenkman adds. "Violate the law by going around the FISA court? No problem. Torture terrorist suspects by waterboarding them? No problem, even as his own attorney general designate opined that torture is illegal under the Constitution as a violation of the 14th amendment."

Remember when Cheney shot his buddy Harry Whittington in the face in that hunting accident? Interesting to note that as a longtime member of the Texas GOP, Whittington was the only Republican to serve on the board of the Texas Department of Corrections. His experience led him to make an observation I've tried to make several times over the years.

While prisons get criminals (or "terrorists") off the streets and dish out retributive justice, what about restorative justice?

We get so caught up in what criminals "deserve" that we lose sight of what Cheney's buddy came to see: "Prisons are to crime what greenhouses are to plants."

I'm not suggesting we open the prison doors and let everyone out. But, seeing as how "getting tough" on crime and terrorists is supposed to make us safer, we need journalists and concerned citizens to ask, out loud: If the majority of prisoners are eventually going to be freed because they're not serving life sentences, doesn't gulag treatment of prisoners ensure there will be plenty more future victims?

Even laying aside the obvious moral and legal ramifications of prisoner abuse, if the answer to that question is 'yes,' then we've got the dumbest detainee policy imaginable.

Sean Gonsalves is a news editor and columnist with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at

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