Magazine article The American Prospect

Accidental Tourists: The Road to Guantanamo, an Unflinching Dramatization of the Case of Britain's Tipton Three, Depicts Degradation Just for Degradation's Sake

Magazine article The American Prospect

Accidental Tourists: The Road to Guantanamo, an Unflinching Dramatization of the Case of Britain's Tipton Three, Depicts Degradation Just for Degradation's Sake

Article excerpt

HAD THEY BEEN BORN AND RAISED on this side of the Atlantic, they might have turned up as characters in a Bruce Springsteen ballad. They are the sort Springsteen tends to memorialize: Their roots are in a faded manufacturing neighborhood; their brushes with the law were petty serapes that did not keep them from retaining their jobs as mail sorters or retail clerks, or from studying at a local university. All three have that knockabout way of going through life. It makes them neither aimless nor directed, but somehow it carries them along.

In the fall of 2001, the happenstance of life as they lived it took them from their hardscrabble neighborhood of Tipton, England, (just outside Birmingham) to Pakistan. That is where one of the Tipton Three, Asif Iqbal, was to be wed in an arranged marriage. The other two, Ruhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul, were buddies who went to Pakistan for the wedding and for the sheer novelty of it.

"When he asked me to go to his wedding, I said, 'Why not?'" Ahmed says in the new British film, The Road to Guantanamo. "He's my friend and, also, it would be a great holiday."

But the lighthearted road trip to a friend's wedding would, within a month, become a grotesque nightmare. Bored with waiting for the marriage ceremony, inspired in a mosque to go and aid poor Muslims in Afghanistan--and intrigued, as well, by tales about the huge loaves of naan, a local bread, they'd heard were customary in Afghanistan--the men who would become known as the Tipton Three crossed into Afghanistan just as the American military assault on the Taliban regime began.

It may be that the inspiring imam was recruiting terrorist fighters. But if so, it was an incompetent effort with regard to the Tipton Three. They saw fighting only in the forms of the bombs dropped by American forces and say they never even carried a weapon.

THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO IS A dramatization of their story. Shot--with eerie authenticity--in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran and directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat White-cross, the movie won the Silver Bear award for best direction at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. Its American release is scheduled for selected theaters this month. The film is useful not so much for its presentation of new information--any American who has followed news accounts of this legal no man's land by now knows it is a place where seemingly endless (and mindless) interrogations yield little to nothing of substance.

But if it falls short on eye-popping revelations, the film unflinchingly depicts an enduring truth. Guantanamo is, at bottom, a place where the United States degrades people for the sake of degradation. And because of the extraordinary shroud of secrecy that the government has used to cloak its activities there, the world will never know how many detainees are actually dangerous terrorists, and how many are unfortunate bystanders crushed by a vengeful war.

The Tipton Three appear to be among the unfortunates. Iqbal's mother had traveled from England to Pakistan to find her son a bride. She returned to England--on September 10, 2001--confident that she'd done so, and with instructions to her son to go meet the girl. The three friends were aware of the terrorist attacks of September 11, they say, when they went off to Pakistan not long after the attacks. But they had no idea that their later decision to travel from Pakistan into Afghanistan would sweep them up in the aftermath of the attacks against America.

"Being young, being only 18, you don't be aware of the political issues," Ahmed told me in a recent interview. "We were young, stupid. You don't know what the outcome is going to be. It's one of the childish things that we did."

It ended up being worse than childish when the three were rounded up by Northern Alliance fighters as they scrambled to get out of the war zone and back into Pakistan.

This is, we now know, the story of most of the detainees held without charge and without clear prospect of release in the U. …

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