Monday, June 12, 2006

Three deaths at Gitmo

After four years of being jailed without charge, and multiple attempts by various prisoners, three inmates at Gitmo finally succeeded in hanging themselves over the weekend.

That might be controversial enough; I'll get into the basic implications of the deaths a little later. But the U.S. stoked the flames of world outrage by dismissing the suicides as a "good PR move."

The suicides by hanging of the three men, two Saudis and one Yemeni, on Saturday sparked renewed calls from foreign governments and human rights groups for the military facility to be closed or moved.

About 465 foreign nationals are being held there without charge, some for almost four years. Yesterday, however, Colleen Graffy, a senior State Department official, dismissed the suicides as a “good PR move to draw attention” and “a tactic to further the jihadi cause”.

The camp commander described the men as dangerous extremists would go to any lengths to become martyrs. “They are smart, they are creative, they are committed,” Rear Admiral Harry Harris said. “This was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”

I cannot imagine a dumber thing for us to say. There may be a kernel of truth there, the idea that some extremists are willing to die in order to advance their cause. But all the suicides do is call renewed attention to the embarassment that is Gitmo. The real damage is that the "They died? Oh well" response suggests to the world that we couldn't care less about prisoner rights or safety. It suggest that we follow certain guidelines for prisoner treatment not out of conviction but because we are expected to.

To our credit -- though too late -- cooler heads quickly backpedaled from those initial remarks:

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs Cully Stimson, speaking to BBC radio, distanced himself from the statements.

"I wouldn't characterize it as a good PR move. What I would say is that we are always concerned when someone takes his own life. Because as Americans, we value life, even the lives of violent terrorists who are captured waging war against our country," he said.

In the aftermath of the earlier statements, Stimson's remarks sound like so much spin.

On the one hand, it's possible to read too much into the "PR stunt" line: that defense was offered by relatively junior officials, and then contradicted by more senior officials.

But it reveals an attitude held by at least some of the people responsible for guarding and protecting prisoners and waging the fight against terrorists. It also seems to expose a curious laissez-faire attitude on the part of the Bush administration's publicity machine. When something as momentous as three prisoner deaths occur, why did they leave the response to such junior officials? Especially junior officials who had apparently not been briefed on what to say? Where was Bush? Where was Rice? Where was Rumsfeld?

Other than the damage done by such rhetorical foot-shooting, what do the deaths mean? Well, I've long said that Gitmo is an indefensible legal and moral catastrophe, and argued that the prisoners either need to be charged with crimes, labeled as POWs or released. I've also said that the existence of Gitmo does us more harm than good, and should be shuttered for that reason alone.

The deaths don't change that. They may highlight the unAmerican injustice going on there; they may speak to the increasing hopelessness of the prisoners; they may (and have) fueled renewed outrage and pressure to close the facility. But Gitmo should never have been opened for the reasons it was, or operated in the manner it has been. No amount of "humane treatment" makes up for creating a deliberate legal limbo in which human beings can disappear for years at a time. No amount of "administrative review" makes up for such clear proof that the rule of law is only for those people that we say it's for, rather than a deeply held principle that we apply to everyone accused of wrongdoing.

The deaths don't change the debate. They simply point out, in ever starker terms, what made Gitmo a bad idea in the first place.

Shut it down.

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