Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, June 12, 2006
The Guantanamo suicides are “appalling,” to use a word favored by the editorialists, only up to a point. They are appalling in what they say about the blight on justice that is Gitmo itself. They are appalling in what they say about the Bush administration’s descent where once only the likes of Soviet and East German and Albanian and Chinese governments descended. They are appalling in what they say about America’s other branches of government—Congress, the courts—for their complicity in Guantanamo, and therefore in the suicides. Congress could at any point since January 2002, when Gitmo became the black hole it is, have legislated against it, clearly and unequivocally. It could have said: The United States does not engage in extra-judicial punishment and kangaroo tribunals. It could have said top the Bush administration: Not over the Constitution’s dead body. Of course it didn’t, conceding that the Constitution since 2001 might as well have been a dead body. It was left up to the courts. They turned it into a game of punts. Chance after chance, with that minor exception in 2004, when the Supreme Court applied a few conditions that the administration quickly evaded, the courts deferred to the Sovietization of American justice. Appalling, all that, but the suicides in and of themselves are not appalling. They are the one liberating action these men have chosen to make, the one act they could perform entirely of their own free will in defiance of the dungeon they were forced into.
And so, given the ultimate (if desperate and pathetic) courage of those final acts, there are a few things more appalling than the suicides. They are the U.S. government’s response to the suicides. First, the way the men were described. The administration calls one of them a relatively high operative in al-Qaeda, though he’s never been charged (as haven’t 455 of the 465 men at Guantanamo). The administration claims another was “picked up” in Afghanistan, as if that meant anything at all. In that case the military could have also “picked up” Rory Stewart, who walked across Afghanistan in January 2002, just as Gitmo was opening for business, and whose book describing the journey, The Places in Between, was featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review on June 11. And it claims the third was part of some splinter group, whatever that means (the key word here is splinter, another derogation by association). The administration is merely trying to paint the men in shades darker than the men’s profiles could ever bear. If Bush administration justice could retroactively define evil for its image’s convenience, why not retroactively paint the dead as the worst of the worst? For all we know, the men could have been on a path to freedom, or to being sent home to their own countries’ dungeons.
The most appalling thing about the suicides, however, was the actual reaction of the Bush administration. Here was Colleen Graffy, deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy (that is, state propaganda), on BBC’s Newshour yesterday: “It does sound like this is part of a strategy—in that they don’t value their own lives, and they certainly don’t value ours; and they use suicide bombings as a tactic. Taking their own lives was not necessary, but it certainly is a good PR move.” Of course, we don’t know that “they” were suicide bombers. We don’t even know that “they” were Taliban combatants. We know nothing about them. And to use the word “they” as the sole indictment is the old strategy of Southern white courts indicting all “niggers” as presumed rapists just because “they” are black. It’s the old American racist trick put to its latest uses. “They” says it all.
And here was the Gitmo commander, Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris, saying the suicides were an al-Qaida tactic: “They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” On Saturday in his radio address Bush was still too busy stroking himself over the death of Zarqawi to pay the Gitmo suicides any attention. But according to the Times, “White House officials on Sunday described the men as committed terrorists, and military officials said that none of them had been among the handful of prisoners whose cases have been brought before military commissions for prosecution.” The contradiction in that one little paragraph is enough to shed a little more than reasonable doubt on the claims of a White House never known for its acquaintance with truth.
Just as appalling has been the Pentagon’s reaction to the suicides in technical terms—the fact, the Pentagon says, that the “inmates” at Guantanamo had been allowed too many luxuries, like doing their laundry in their cells, or keeping their bed linen overnight, or not being shackled twenty four hours a day. “We’ve got to determine and find the balance between the comfort items that we would like to provide and the point at which comfort items in the possession of a few determined detainees will be turned into something that could contribute to taking their lives,”Gen. Bantz Craddock (whose name Balzac would have pierced with insights), head of the U.S. Southern Command, put it. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes how inmates in the Soviet camps were sometimes forbidden from putting their arms inside their blankets at night (a normal human instinct of self-protection). It would be excruciating for the inmates to stick by the rule, but their jailers enforced it the same way they kept light bulbs burning above them twenty-four hours a day: small acts of torture without leaving a mark. Craddock probably has a contingent of staffers studying the Archipelago for ideas.
The military is talking about “after-action reports” and inquiries and post-game shows. But it comes down to this: The suicides have nothing to do with failed procedures, but with failed policy. They are the latest in a long line of blights on an administration blinded by its own hubris, blind to justice, blind to human rights. “Asymmetrical” warfare? PR move? The shame is America’s alone.