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A Modern-Day Salem?

The Gitmo Witch Trials

by HAZEM I. KIRA

A little more than three-hundred years ago, the most notorious case of mass hysteria erupted in Salem, Mass.  Thankfully, the witchcraft trials, which took place in the pre-revolutionary era, would serve as a cautionary tale for the nation’s Founding Fathers who wished to embed into our national memory the ideals of freedom and due process. Nearly a hundred years after the trials, 39 of these great citizens would sign the U.S. Constitution, a revolutionary document recognizing the inalienable rights given to every person at birth, irrespective of citizenship.

Regrettably, after the atrocities of September 11 another wave of mass hysteria swept through America.  But this time, it was not of imaginary witches, but rather imaginary terrorist cells bubbling in the caldrons of every peaceful neighborhood, mosque, and city around the world.  Fear of the “other” crept into the American psyche and lapses in due process became more and more frequent.  Three-hundred years ago, citizens in Salem gladly set aside their due process at the mere mention of a “witch.”  In the wake of September 11, the mere mention of “terrorist” has a similar effect upon our countrymen.  Explore patterns of history, and one discovers that every new villain is born, first, in the imagination of a people, to describe the unknown and undesirable.

Almost all of the 164 detainees at Guantanamo Bay have never been charged with a crime.  More than 80 inmates who have been cleared for release, by the U.S. government following an assessment by the Guantanamo Review Task Force set up by President Barack Obama, have yet to be released because of Congressional restrictions on the transfer of detainees to the U.S. and other countries. This, in part, is based on the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which states that “no court, justice or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any other action against the United States or its agents relating to any aspect of the detention, transfer, treatment, trial or conditions of confinement of an alien who is or was detained by the United States.” On Friday, a federal appeals court wrestled with a challenge to force-feed hunger strikers, many of whom are far from death. Detainee lawyer Jon Eisenberg said that he objects to this incredibly painful process of nasogastric force-feeding (through the nose), in principle, arguing that the international community sees it as “unethical and equivalent to torture.”

In 1798 Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to remind this country of what it had forgotten and even threatened to secede from the Union after the passage of similar set of unconstitutional actions, the Alien and Sedition Acts by then president John Adams.  The Acts curtailed key civil liberties, such as freedoms of speech and press, and were aimed at French and Irish immigrants who opposed war with France– most of whom were Catholics and/or Democrats (Anti-Federalists).  Jefferson and Madison’s threat to leave the Union was to remind the country that the ideals found in the Constitution are more than just mere words, but the foundations of a stable and just society.

While in Salem accused “witches” who did not confess, were hanged; in Gitmo (Camp Delta), accused “terrorists” have been tortured, held indefinitely without trial, nasogastric force-fed, and even gifted with “extraordinary rendition” to rogue nations, only to disappear out of existence.

To protest their indefinite detention at Gitmo, more than 100 prisoners have for the past seven month engaged in a hunger strike. To try to break the protest, the US military subjected dozens of the hunger strikers to the cruel and degrading practice of nasogastric force-feeding. This last Friday, the Federal Court of Appeals in Washington, DC heard a case that it first ruled on in July, seeking an injunction against force-feeding at Guantánamo on the grounds that it violates human rights and the right of religious worship.

At the height of the terrorist hysteria following 911, many believed that water boarding would exorcise the truth out of accused terrorists.  Similarly, in Salem, accused witches were often put through “enhanced interrogation” with the hope of achieving a similar end.  One unique practice of New Englanders was the use of “pressing,” a process that involved placing heavy stones on the accused’s chest until he/she confessed or died.  In 1692, after being arrested for witchcraft, Giles Corey refused to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty and was subjected to “pressing,” where he died a couple days later.

Not surprisingly, most of the accused in Salem, Massachusetts were individuals with an independent streak, barren women, the homeless or litigious, or those that challenged the status quo. In Gitmo, many of the prisoners include children, individuals who were part of a warring tribe or had strong political opinions, as well as victims of bounty hunters interested in making a quick buck at the expense of the innocent.

America, critics argue, has lost its bearings like a ship lost at sea, no longer able to lead– even itself.  Many have attributed America’s decline on the international scene to weak leadership, but perhaps a more sensible reason, is that America is no longer true to its core identity and ideals.  Since George W. Bush established the detention camp on the isolated base in Cuba, in the hopes of operating outside normal standards of the US constitution, and President Obama continues with the practice, our moral high ground has been compromised.

Apparently, for both the Bush and Obama Administrations, the mere accusation of terrorism continues to suffice for guilt. Ironically, in the Salem witchcraft trials, accusers were afforded, at least, a pseudo-trial.  In Guantanamo, prisoners are deemed indefinitely guilty without even the pretense of a trial.  One wonders what the Founding Fathers’ would think of this debacle.  One can only hope that the next president and Congress will work feverishly to dismantle, completely and permanently, this most un-American of institutions and return America to its founding ideals.   Here’s for hoping.

Hazem I. Kira teaches US History and Government in the San Francisco Bay Area.