February 27, 2006

American Gulag

With a predictability that used to irritate me and that now simply makes me feel very, very tired, I come across comments about various essays of mine stating that, while I am probably mostly correct about the issues I discuss, I'm guilty of "overstating" the case, or of being "melodramatic or "shrill." As others have noted over the past year or so, the accusation that you are "shrill" is actually a compliment, even if usually not intended as such: it means that you've stated a truth that most people would prefer not to acknowledge.

But with regard to criticisms that I sometimes "overstate" the case or am too "melodramatic," let me note the following. What my critics usually go on to say in various ways is that, while what I'm discussing may be bad in important ways, it's not that bad. Sure, they say, things could get very bad indeed if people took certain ideas to extremes, but they haven't done that yet -- and maybe they won't. So, yes, we should keep an eye on these developments, but there's no reason to get "hysterical" about it.

This is where the tiredness hits me. As I'm writing this, I found for a few minutes that I could barely get myself to go on, because the flaws in this approach are so obvious. Most people apparently know nothing of history and, if they have studied it at all, they have learned absolutely nothing. This is always the way abuses of power begin, and this is always the way those abuses increase. Even a full dictatorship, for example, does not have to arrive overnight: it can make its presence known slowly, in small increments. With each new step, most people say: "Well, that's not so bad. I can live with that." And they never seek to understand the principle that is being established -- and where that principle can lead in time. I keep thinking that people will at least remember one of the worst excuses offered by many people after incomprehensible horrors have occurred -- that, for instance, many ordinary Germans said after World War II: "But who could have known it would come to that?" The point, of course, is that some people did know, but nobody listened to them. They were undoubtedly accused of being "shrill" and "hysterical."

The approach of almost all our media, and of most bloggers too, is to treat each incident and each case in isolation -- to act as if each new story has no past and no future, and connects to nothing else at all. Some of the reaction to the recent stories about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping made me tired in the same way: many commentators acted as if the Bush administration's attempts to place itself entirely beyond all legal constraints were new in some way, and that we had suddenly crossed some new threshold. In fact, the Bush administration announced these particular goals several years ago and, in principle, the wiretapping story revealed nothing new at all. From that perspective, the wiretapping scandal didn't surprise me in the least: the Bush administration's approach has been consistent for a long time.

In May of last year, I wrote an essay titled, Understanding the Significance of Guantanamo: The Symbol of Omnipotent Power. After excerpting a Jacob Hornberger article about the Jose Padilla case and its relationship to certain issues implicated by Guantanamo, I wrote:
And that, in brief, is why Guantanamo is so crucial to the Bush's administration's goals in its war, a war that will be never-ending if it has its way: Guantanamo symbolizes the Bush administration's desire for omnipotent power -- for the administration to be able to do whatever it wants, with no oversight or interference by anyone, including the federal judiciary and including those restraints imposed by the Constitution itself.

In this manner, especially when coupled with the great danger represented by the Padilla case, the Bush administration seeks to place itself beyond all restraint derived from any source, and to make itself all-powerful. If it is successful, that will definitively and absolutely spell the end of liberty in America -- and the rest is only a matter of time, and of details. In this sense, it is entirely appropriate that Guantanamo is located where another omnipotent dictator already holds sway.


The indisputable desire of this administration for absolute power over every single one of us cannot be denied. Bush and his defenders may refuse to acknowledge them, and our media may fail to discuss them, but those are the facts -- if one is willing to face them, and to admit what they mean.

Whether Bush and his enablers will admit it or not, in fact the policies they seek to implement would make the United States itself into one gigantic Guantanamo: where any one of us can be detained indefinitely merely upon the word or desire of one person, with no charges ever filed against us, and where we can be abused or tortured, and perhaps even murdered, at will. And no one and nothing would be able to stop or even question them. That's the future they want so desperately -- and I suggest that you always keep it in mind and never, ever forget it.
As I say, the wiretapping story represents nothing new in terms of the political principles involved. Earlier this morning, I happened to come across some comments about my Guantanamo essay from last year. Those comments, made shortly after the essay appeared in May 2005, claimed that I was "overstating" the case, and that I was being an "alarmist." Surely, things wouldn't get that bad, would they? I think you can see why such remarks are more than a little frustrating, and more than a little tiring.

Speaking of Guantanamo, a lawyer for some prisoners being held there has written an article for the Los Angeles Times. I'm certain the Bush defenders will happily ignore it, since its title is, "American Gulag":
I represent six Kuwaiti prisoners, each of whom has now spent nearly four years at Guantanamo. It took me 2 1/2 years to gain access to my clients, but now I have visited the prison camp 11 times in the last 14 months. What I have witnessed is a cruel and eerie netherworld of concrete and barbed wire that has become a daily nightmare for the nearly 500 people swept up after 9/11 who have been imprisoned without charges or trial for more than four years. It is truly our American gulag.


The Pentagon's files on the six Kuwaiti prisoners we represent reveal that none was captured on a battlefield or accused of engaging in hostilities against the U.S. The prisoners claim that they were taken into custody by Pakistani and Afghan warlords and turned over to the U.S. for bounties ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 — a claim confirmed by American news reports. We have obtained copies of bounty leaflets distributed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. forces promising rewards — "enough to feed your family for life" — for any "Arab terrorist" handed over.

The files include only the flimsiest accusations or hearsay that would never stand up in court. The file on one prisoner indicated that he had been seen talking to two suspected Al Qaeda members on the same day — at places thousands of miles apart.


Every prisoner I've interviewed claims to have been badly beaten and subjected to treatment that only could be called torture, by Americans, from the first day of U.S. captivity in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They said they were hung by their wrists and beaten, hung by their ankles and beaten, stripped naked and paraded before female guards, and given electric shocks. At least three claimed to have been beaten again upon arrival in Guantanamo. One of my clients, Fayiz Al Kandari, now 27, said his ribs were broken during an interrogation in Pakistan. I felt the indentation in his ribs. "Beat me all you want, just give me a hearing," he said he told his interrogators.

Another prisoner, Fawzi Al Odah, 25, is a teacher who left Kuwait City in 2001 to work in Afghan, then Pakistani, schools. After 9/11, he and four other Kuwaitis were invited to dinner by a Pakistani tribal leader and then sold by him into captivity, according to their accounts, later confirmed by Newsweek and ABC News.

On Aug. 8, 2005, Fawzi, in desperation, went on a hunger strike to assert his innocence and to protest being imprisoned for four years without charges. He said he wanted to defend himself against any accusations, or die. He told me that he had heard U.S. congressmen had returned from tours of Guantanamo saying that it was a Caribbean resort with great food. "If I eat, I condone these lies," Fawzi said.


When I met with Fawzi three weeks ago, the tubes were out of his nose. I told him I was thankful that after five months he had ended his hunger strike. He looked at me sadly and said, "They tortured us to make us stop." At first, he said, they punished him by taking away his "comfort items" one by one: his blanket, his towel, his long pants, his shoes. They then put him in isolation. When this failed to persuade him to end the hunger strike, he said, an officer came to him Jan. 9 to announce that any detainee who refused to eat would be forced onto "the chair." The officer warned that recalcitrant prisoners would be strapped into a steel device that pulled their heads back, and that the tubes would be forced in and wrenched out for each feeding. "We're going to break this hunger strike," the officer told him.

Fawzi said he heard the prisoner next door screaming and warning him to give up the strike. He decided that he wasn't "on strike to be tortured." He said those who continued on the hunger strike not only were strapped in "the chair" but were left there for hours; he believes that guards fed them not only nutrients but also diuretics and laxatives to force them to defecate and urinate on themselves in the chair.

After less than two weeks of this treatment, the strike was over. Of the more than 80 strikers at the end of December, Fawzi said only three or four were holding out. As a result of the strike, however, prisoners are now getting a meager ration of bottled water.

Fawzi said eating was the only aspect of life at Guantanamo he could control; forcing him to end the hunger strike stripped him of his last means of protesting his unjust imprisonment. Now, he said, he feels "hopeless."
You should read the entire article.

Some people will continue to minimize these horrors, and to say that things aren't "that bad." For others, the horrors are the only reality of their lives -- and things are worse than any of us will ever be able to imagine.

[See also my series, On Torture.]