The Disgrace That Is Guantanamo

I started to write about the disgraceful situation in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba Friday morning. I had read about the International Red Cross’s condemnation of the Bush administration’s continued detention of 650 or more prisoners, some of them juveniles, captured in Afghanistan two years ago. They have been held in cages on the American military base there, without attorneys, with little access to family, and without any charges being placed against them.

Before the war in Iraq fell apart, we heard that Paul Wolfowitz was planning to be in charge of trying some of the men. Several prisoners were targeted to be the guinea pigs for prosecution and, of course, they were facing the death penalty. But it turned out that one or more of those were British subjects. Tony Blair stepped in and, with support for his wholesale commitment to Bush’s war waning, begged Bush not to execute any British citizens.

That’s the last we'd heard until this week when the Red Cross reported that men are trying to commit suicide repeatedly, physical and mental health is deteriorating. One wonders what the hell we are doing down there -- and the answer is probably nothing.

It’s just as well I did not get the article written Friday morning. For on Friday afternoon, driving home, I heard that Bush may now be planning our next war in Cuba. Whether that materializes or not, he was placing new restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba, threatening tourists with criminal prosecution on the grounds that taking money to Cuba was “money laundering for terrorists.” I swear that is what he said. Because I pulled over to the side of the road and wrote it down. So being a friend to Cuban people or a fan of Cuban music -- well, in the administration’s Alice-in-Wonderland world, that makes you a terrorist, too. Whatever you do, don’t buy the video or CD of Buena Vista Social Club. Ry Cooder, you better watch your back. You might be tried as a terrorist sympathizer.

So the Bush is administration, is, I guess, going to try to get all the Cubans here who want to get here, and do what it can to destabilize Cuba so that the Cubans left there are as desperate as the Iraqis are now. Of course we know the reason why -- Bush needs desperately to win Florida in 2004. He’s counting on this invitation to Cubans in Cuba to win the votes of the Cubans already there. Politics as usual.

At his press briefing yesterday, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said that the President “rejects” the report of the Red Cross about the horrible treatment of people in Guantanamo. Rejects it. What does that mean? We just don’t listen to it? We don’t care what the international community thinks of us? It’s irrelevant? We are not going to read it? Likely it means yes, to all of the above.

Then I heard an attorney on NPR Friday night boast that “we” had to treat the prisoners that way. After all, they caused the September 11 attacks. Honestly, that is what he said! What? You can be sure if they were even remotely connected to September 11 they would have been brought to trial, in public, and be awaiting death now. Sadly, the interviewer did not question him about his statement. How many listeners heard it and assumed it to be the truth? How many, like me, heard it and were incensed at the lie of it?

As for the prisoners of Guantanamo, their chaplain and at least two of their translators have been locked up in military prisons, at least one of them charged with treason. Their crimes so far have been enumerated as serving baklava to prisoners (on the banned food list, I guess), having on their computers emails intended for prisoners’ families, and having “maps” or their cells. If the government could, it would charge them with the crime of kindness to fellow human beings or treating prisoners humanely. It can’t do that, so it trumps up charges to make those who try to help them look like terrorists, although the prisoners themselves have not been shown to be terrorists.

So, in an administration where irony is too subtle a term, we have George Bush opening up the shores of Florida to Cubans who will, as soon as they can, become citizens and vote for him and his brother. In the meantime, the Cuban lobby in Florida will see that Bush carries Florida. By hook or crook.

At the same time, we have Bush presiding over the wholesale mistreatment, even torture, some say, of upwards of 700 men who have been shown to have done nothing wrong. Except to have been on the streets of Afghanistan when Bush wanted to act like a cowboy and get “somebody” for September 11.

I guess there is nothing any of us can do about any of this. Except face the fact that the Bush administration is, at its core, a cruel, hateful, and mean bully of a government. To put it in psychological terms, it is sociopathic: lacking in empathy, self-absorbed, a sense of entitlement, hatred of all but self, and with total disregard for the rights of others. Bush will, I fear, get what he wants -- one way or the other.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court has been asked to review a federal appeals court ruling that forecloses federal courts from hearing the pleas of the Guantanamo prisoners. The lower courts agreed that the federal courts had no jurisdiction because the prisoners are not on American soil. How’s that for a catch-22? We arrested them, brought them to a U.S. military base, classified them as “enemy combatants” so as to try to exempt them (and us) from international law, the laws of war, and U.S. law, and now we have declared them outside of the law. I guess, in a sick and twisted way, that does make some sense.

For the hapless prisoners in the black hole of Guantanamo comes a voice from the past to file a friend of the court brief in their behalf. Fred Korematsu is an American citizen of Japanese descent who refused to enter a Japanese internment camp in California 60 some years ago and was prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for challenging the internment order. The Supreme Court then said it was just fine that he was ordered to be locked up, and even finer that he was prosecuted for challenging the order.

In his brief he begs the court to respect the fundamental principle that those deprived of liberty have the right to a fair hearing. I suspect the Supreme Court will follow its leader and “refuse to accept” Mr. Korematsu’s plea. After all, what do fairness, justice, and decency have to do with anything anymore?

Elaine Cassel watches the Bush administration’s war on civil liberties and reports on it at Civil Liberties Watch . She practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia and teaches law and psychology.

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