What's All This Then?

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Friday, June 10, 2005

Jimmy Carter has called for the Guantanamo detention center to be closed. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has said the same thing. And even President Bush says that closing it down is a possibility.

I have no objection to closing the place, but to do it now would be a huge mistake, because it could easily be interpreted as a plea of guilty to the charges leveled by Amnesty International. It’s not that dissimilar a problem from the one facing Israel in its efforts to withdraw from Gaza. Hamas would like to be able to claim that Israel is being driven out by their attacks against Israeli settlements - and the Israelis, who want to withdraw from the albatross that Gaza has become, are having to walk a very fine line to avoid that erroneous perception from taking hold. As comedians will tell you of their craft - timing is everything.

On the other hand, our reaction to the Amnesty International charges has been the stuff of which the international image of the Ugly American is fashioned. Admittedly, AI made an unfortunate choice of language when they described Guantanamo as "The Gulag of our time," and that description should have been roundly criticized as part of our response. But to dismiss the AI report out of hand - for Bush to call it "absurd," Cheney to say that AI is "not to be taken seriously" and General Richard Myers to call it "absolutely irresponsible" is to bolster the belief of many around the world that we are just bullies who tell other countries how they should conduct themselves while telling those same countries that how we conduct ourselves is none of their business.

How dare anyone criticize our code of human rights, we say to the world. We who are the premier champions of human rights. We who live by the highest principles of law. Well of course we can’t that easily claim to be paragons of virtue. The world is aware of our history of decades of racial discrimination -of denying some of our own citizens the basic rights of citizenship - of beatings and lynchings of black citizens. The world knows of our legal enforcement practice of the "third degree." And if they didn’t know about these things from personal observation, they knew about them because we showed them how it all worked in our movies.

Well that’s all in the past you might say - and you’d be right. But it shows that we are capable of the kind of acts that AI says we have been committing at Guantanamo and elsewhere - and to react to the findings of AI in the arrogant manner in which we have dismissed their charges - as though they were part of an international conspiracy to discredit the United States with false accusations, is just about the worst thing we could have done. The word that comes to mind when you read these dismissive statements is stupid. And the description of our representatives who uttered them is idiocy. As though our leaders are a bunch of thick headed dolts who shouldn’t be leading anything more complicated than a game of Simon Says.

We already have enough problems with the way much of the world sees us. Unfortunately there are numskulls among us who think it’s just fine to ignore the rest of the world - to puff out their pseudo patriotic chests and declare in ignorant clamor that they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks. Or doesfor that matter. And they’re probably happy with the way the President and others have reacted to the AI report. The rest of us know that we’ve goofed. Big time.

I don’t have any personal knowledge of how bad things are at Guantanamo. I know that we’ve created our own set of rules that allow us to grab people, throw them into the Gitmo hoosegow and keep them there indefinitely. They’re not "prisoners of war" so we don’t have to abide by the rules of the Geneva Convention - yet we say that we are at war and that we are entitled to hold these people until hostilities end - which could be never. A Catch 22 situation doubled and tripled. And we’ve certainly heard stories of prisoners being abused. We didn’t need the AI report for those kinds of allegations to surface.

But now that we have the Amnesty International report, the question is, how should we deal with it? How should we have dealt with it? For sure not the way we’ve dealt with it so far. That accomplishes nothing other than to confirm the belief of many that we are bullies who talk a good game when it comes to the rule of law but have nothing but disdain for international organizations that have the temerity to be critical of anything we do.

We know that as a matter of principle, Americans are against everything that Amnesty International says we have done. Instead of condemning and dismissing their report, what would be wrong in saying just that - and then adding that while we think they’re wrong in their interpretation, we respect the organization and we will thoroughly investigate their allegations? We will appoint a totally non-partisan civilian panel with sweeping powers to look into every nook and cranny of Guantanamo and other detention centers where prisoners are being held, and if we find evidence of abuse, those responsible will be held accountable.

Wouldn’t that accomplish more than reacting with name calling? We still admit nothing, but we show respect for the opinions of those who criticize us even if we don’t agree with them - just as we look for our criticisms of other countries, peoples and organizations to be respected when those we are criticizing don’t agree with us.

We can still carry a needed big stick while speaking softly to and of our critics, and everyone will recognize it for what it is. But no one will lose face and the waters of the world will be less muddied. It’s called diplomacy. This administration needs to learn how and when to use it.