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Answer to Martyrdom Bids: Oblivion in An Idaho Cell

Pierre Tristam

The Pentagon's claim that five of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay want to put an end to their legal proceedings and confess to their alleged roles in the 9/11 attacks made me think of a few lines in Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran," her memoir of living under the ayatollahs' regime of McCarthyism with a veil: "The worst crime committed by totalitarian mindsets," Nafisi writes, "is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, that is an act of utmost brutality."

The case of the Guantanamo prisoners is a variation on that perversion. Both the accused and their jailers are orchestrating the totalitarian mindset, abetting each other in their complicity. There is no victim between them, certainly not on the part of the American government that created the monstrosity of Guantanamo's Orwellian "Camp Justice." Difficult as this is to concede, the accused are still, according to any law that calls itself civilized, innocent until proven guilty. Strictly speaking, they should be considered victims, maybe not for their sake but for that of the judicial system fouled in their name.

Those five angling for a confession make it almost impossible to see them as anything more than a 9/11 tumor. The confession is their latest ploy. They dread the possibility -- the shame -- of innocence, or at least of finishing their lives without their names forever plaqued to 9/11, preferably as martyrs executed by the "Great Satan." That's what they want most, that immortalizing execution, which the Bush administration, in what would be a supreme act of complicity, would be happy to grant them.

My guess is that the American public would love to see these men executed, too. End the legal games, for all their sham. Grant the accused their wish. The public would then be playing its part in the farce, maybe as the closest thing to a victim in the triangle. It was victimized first by the attacks, then by the federal government's transformation of American society into a fearful fortress within its borders, a lashing one beyond them (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan). Complicit, too, by swallowing whole the fiction that freedom and justice can be preserved by their obliteration where, when and regarding whom the president decides they must be obliterated.


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To accept these five men's confessions, and the Pentagon's ridiculous reasoning that it's a plea like any other, would be the ultimate act of swallowing the lie. But isn't that what made the last seven years so successful for Osama bin Laden? What enabled al-Qaida to make a playground of American fears and a garrison of American freedoms? In the Old Testament, the whale swallowed Jonah. In the "war on terror," the American public swallowed the whale.

There is also the matter of capital punishment. The accused want to join the other Infamous Nineteen, the 9/11 hijackers, in that Hall of Flame that poses for their death cult's terminus. Killing them would grant them their ultimate wish while reminding the world that the United States remains, almost unique among western nations, a place where state-sponsored murder is still enthusiastically practiced with grisly frequency. Taliban and Saudi executioners like to kill their wards by chopping their heads or felling concrete walls on them. We do it with amperes and lethal injections, then delude ourselves about the difference. Do we really want to underscore that affinity with the Middle East by obliging the death fantasies of five maniacs again, and with inexcusable irony, on our own soil?

So this sought-after confession by these five men accused of plotting 9/11 is more than it appears. It's an opportunistic lunge at immortality by the accused, an equally opportunistic lunge out of the infernal machinery of totalitarian justice the Bush administration boxed itself into with Guantanamo. To satisfy either is to grant both sides victories they don't deserve, vindicating their brutality by whitewashing it.

It won't be enough to close Guantanamo. The Guantanamo prisoners should be transferred to federal courts' jurisdiction, the five confessors among them. The system should be opened, the federal government's case against the accused made within the absolutely conventional rules of the judicial system, and before juries of -- well, not peers, exactly, but you get the idea. If the accused are found guilty, the best fate that can await them is not the favor of martyrdom, but a long and healthy oblivion in a forgotten prison somewhere in the recesses of an Idaho crag. They should get good health care too, to ensure that they live long enough to appreciate their irrelevance: It's the best salve humanity can give itself to repair the fanaticism the men of 9/11 brought, and their accomplices in the Bush junta, still unpunished, let bloom.

Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at or through his personal Web site at .

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