American Gulag

In case you haven’t noticed it, the Bush administration’s standard response to any criticism is to attack the critic. Ad hominem attacks are designed, of course, to avoid the subject of the criticism. Such a tactic greatly appeals to armchair patriots with petrified brains.

The fact is, the Bush administration has created a gulag, as Amnesty International recently charged. Certainly it is not on the scale of Stalin’s, but a series of prisons in Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan and in other, hidden places where people are held indefinitely without charges and without access to even humanitarian organizations can be fairly called gulags.

This corruption of American moral standards begins, as most corrupt practices do, with an abuse of language. The phrase "enemy combatant" means simply a person who is fighting you. But, if you capture that person, he is no longer an enemy combatant. He is a prisoner of war.

But the Bush administration, not wishing to be bound by international law, claims that "enemy combatant" is a new classification. It means (to the Bush administration) a person who can be put in prison without charges for an indefinite period of time. This sleazy practice causes us far more damage than any benefit Bush imagines can be derived from it.

Look, we have laws against terrorism. If there are prisoners in Guantanamo who are guilty of terrorism, charge them, bring them to trial, convict them and put them away. If they are just prisoners of war, then obey the Geneva Conventions. I fail to see how this could possibly threaten our national security.

Even though Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose credibility is close to zero, says the people in Guantanamo are very, very bad and dangerous people, the fact is that in Afghanistan, we offered our warlord allies a bounty for any Taliban or al-Qaida guy who was turned over to us. Well, grow up, folks. That created a financial incentive for any gunman short on cash to snatch some poor soul off the street and sell him to the Americans. After all, how would we know if he was Taliban or al-Qaida? We wouldn’t.

The CIA did the same thing in Vietnam. A friend of mine who ran a group of Nung mercenaries was authorized to pay them $5 for every Viet Cong head they brought in. Naturally, they always returned with several sacks full of Vietnamese heads, but were they Viet Cong or just innocent Vietnamese? No way to tell. When it comes to trying to play the imperialist game, we always seem to have more money than brains.

Another friend of mine from El Salvador used to laugh when we were financing that war against guerrillas. "My God, there are only 7,000 of them," he said with a smile, "and as long as you are paying us a million dollars a day to fight them, we can’t afford to kill them."

But suppose some of the guys at Guantanamo really are very bad people. Well, try ’em, convict ’em and put them in an American prison. I’ll bet our home-grown very bad people are more than a match for any al-Qaida or Taliban thug. You want to see some scary, dangerous people? Visit an American prison.

It should be obvious that we will never win the war on terrorism without winning the hearts and minds of the people, to use two clichés in one sentence. Obviously, by flouting international law and human-rights standards, we are going to lose the public-relations battle. Losing this battle will result in more real battle deaths for our troops overseas.

Our president, God bless him, seems to be under the delusion that whatever he says is so. In other words, he seems to believe he can alter reality with words. Well, that might work with the lap-dog press corps in Washington, but the rest of the world looks at facts, and the facts, in this case, are not on our side.

We are abusing human rights and international law at Guantanamo and in other hidden prisons, and we should stop it immediately. It is in our own self-interest to do so.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969 to 1971, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.