BY JONATHAN GOTTFRIED
The Defense Department’s photograph of Camp X-Ray detainees, shackled and kneeling, has provoked a glut of editorials and speculation around the globe. Leading the hyperbole was the U.K. description of Guantanamo as “a scandal of international proportions. Brutalised, often tortured, these are men who have been stripped of their most basic rights.” Terry Waite has likened the treatment of Al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees to his experience as a hostage in Beirut, which involved being chained to a wall and beaten on the soles of his feet with a cable. Finally, the Pakistani Dawn, after oddly describing Cuba as “a remote Atlantic island,” warned Americans that the “world’s most advanced democracy will, by compromising on justice for the prisoners, have succumbed to the base instincts usually displayed by its enemies.”
In this fury of recriminations, fact and fiction have parted ways. Not only have observers from the Red Cross and the United Kingdom found the detainees’ accommodations and treatment to be fair, but an article in The New York Times (not usually partial to the U.S. government’s behavior at Guantanamo) on February 4 described the eye surgery of a 21-year-old detainee who has suffered from glaucoma since he was 16. The BBC’s Alistair Cooke has described the 161 surgeons, doctors, paramedics and nurses who care for the, at present, 158 detainees. This is not to mention the snacks, candy bars and hot meals prepared in accordance with Muslim dietary restrictions.
Perhaps the Observer was confusing Camp X-Ray with its own country’s former prisons in Northern Ireland or the current, reported mistreatment of suspected Islamic militants at Belmarsh high-security prison in southeast London? And the Dawn may have mistaken Guantanamo for its own detention centers, filled with the targets of Musharraf’s crackdown on militants. I’m guessing that candy bars aren’t on those militants’ menus and “appeals” have a whole different meaning over there.
What strikes me about these screeds is how much ink and paper is wasted on this issue when crimes of far more staggering dimensions are omnipresent. When the Observer writes of “men who have been stripped of their most basic rights,” why isn’t it referring to “President” Mugabe’s expropriation of land from families on the basis of race and his efforts to thwart the upcoming democratic elections? Or how about Saudi Arabia’s execution – performed near January 1 to ring in the New Year – of three men for being homosexuals? For a “scandal of international proportions,” how about Saddam Hussein’s use of gas chambers in his “prison clean-up campaign”? Or the 3,000 Taliban prisoners in a city near Mazar-e-Sharif who are being kept in an Afghan-run facility built to hold 200 prisoners?
To the long and tiresome litany of lessons that we have learned from 9/11, add this: America’s and the world’s OCD-driven focus on our country’s misdemeanors in light of more serious human rights violations abroad is characteristic of our self-absorption and foreign, overfamiliar spit-on-America (“because we hold you to such high standards”) rhetoric.
There are those who will argue that the debate surrounding the Geneva Convention is significant because it is yet one more example of American unilateralism. That word has become a foreign policy insult that is, in and of itself, meaningless. Since when has the majority had a monopoly on morality? Nor is a principle any more valid because it has two adherents instead of one. Cries that America is going it alone and vague references to the Geneva Convention dodge the issues.
If ever there were a case where the spirit of the law trumped the letter, this debate over the Geneva Convention is it. The Convention was drafted for international armed conflict involving fights between nation-states. It never pretended to be a code for all wars. It does not, for example, cover civil wars, insurgent guerrilla terrorist factions (note that Britain never designated IRA bombers POWs), or wars between states that subscribe to the Geneva Convention and those that do not. Nor does it cover Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Al-Qaeda is disqualified for any number of reasons: because its soldiers did not wear a fixed distinctive sign visible at a distance (although I’ve got to admit, that requirement seems a little strange to me); because they did not carry their arms openly (preferring shoes); and because their targeting of civilians does not accord with the seemingly oxymoronic “laws and customs of war.” And the Taliban no more qualify under the Convention than do members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. The Taliban’s representative did not sit in Kabul’s seat at the U.N.; its “government” was not the recognized government of Afghanistan; and the Taliban – with its child-“generals” and tribal marauders – could hardly be considered as having a regular army.
The Convention, dating back to prehistoric 1949, simply does not contemplate the current state of affairs. Professor Wedgwood at Yale Law School has pointed out that, under the Convention, POWs cannot be confined in cells and must be guaranteed utensils including “razors, combs (and) nail scissors,” as well as “needles” and “pen-knives.” An Al-Qaeda suspect at the Metropolitan Correction Center recently stabbed the eye of warden with a sharpened comb, and it has been reported that Camp X-Ray detainees have told the guards that they will kill an American before they leave the camp. How about we agree to classify the detainees as POWs if the rest of the world agrees to run the camp? That way, the English can ensure that their home-grown terrorists are being treated according to their own sterling standards. We’ll supervise them with a copy of the Geneva Convention, while we watch from a distance … from a very far distance. In the reactions of many to Guantanamo, the moral outrage has far outstripped any crime that the U.S. may have possibly committeed.