At Guantanamo Bay this past weekend, three internees - or
prisoners, or detainees, or whatever you want to call human beings
jailed indefinitely without conviction and with no hope of legal
recourse - committed suicide.
Navy Rear-Admiral Harry Harris, the base commander, described the
suicides as "not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric
warfare against us."
Details on what led these men to commit their act of war are a
little hard to come by thanks to the extraordinarily un-American
veil of secrecy that surrounds the camp. But despite that effort,
information about Gitmo has trickled out slowly - from sources in
the FBI and CIA, from the International Committee of the Red Cross,
from a released British prisoner, and from investigative journalists
such as The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh.
The American Civil Liberties Union has compiled thousands of
documents relating to torture of prisoners in US custody, including
FBI memos complaining about military abuses at Guantanamo Bay.
Details include prisoners being left in straitjackets in intense
sunlight with hoods over their heads, and "military guards ...
slapping prisoners, stripping them, pouring cold water over them and
making them stand until they got hypothermia."
At its root, the very idea of Guantanamo Bay runs headfirst into
what it means to be an American.
The US has (or had) a worldwide reputation for promoting human
rights. That reputation was earned by its struggle - often against
itself, as was the case during the fight against slavery, and the
civil rights movement - to protect individuals against systems that
would otherwise mistreat them.
The roots of that reputation run deep, reaching back to the
Enlightenment ideals that gave birth to the essential protections of
the Constitution. But a lot of countries merely talked the talk at
the time of their birth - there's a mile-wide gap between the high-
flying rhetoric of the French Revolution and the blood bath that
But George Washington and his compatriots took their founding
principles quite seriously. On Aug. 11, 1775, Washington sent a
blistering letter to a British counterpart, Thomas Gage. He
complained about gravely wounded and untreated American soldiers
being thrown into a jail with common criminals.
Eight days later, despite threatening to treat British soldiers
with equal cruelty, Washington admitted that he could not and would
not retaliate in kind, writing: "Not only your Officers, and
Soldiers have been treated with a Tenderness due to Fellow Citizens,
& Brethren; but even those execrable Parricides [traitors] whose
Counsels & Aid have deluged their Country with Blood, have been
protected from the Fury of a justly enraged People."
Imagine that; a government on the run fighting a desperate war
against a hated enemy and treating captured prisoners with
compassion and decency. No doubt many of the captured British troops
had intelligence that might have been useful to the Revolutionary
cause - still, decent treatment was the norm. In the current war on
terror, that would be described as being "soft."
Alexander Hamilton, while commanding soldiers against the
British, prevented what could have been a massacre. …