We don’t hear much about the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay anymore, those men harvested from the terror farms of Afghanistan and shucked of all legal bearings down to the word “alleged.” When we do, it’s in snippets of absurdities, like fugitive scenes from something Samuel Beckett might have written a sequel to “Waiting for Godot” where Godot has been knocked off for good and Vladimir and Estragon are babbling centenarians wondering, like those two ancient Afghans released from Guantanamo last week, what they could possibly have been doing on a palm-horned Devil’s Island in the first place.
Here was Vladimir, a.k.a. Faiz Muhammad, a partially deaf, shriveled relic who said he was 105 years old, boasting about his new clothes like a first grader on his first day of school. And here was Estragon, . Muhammad Siddiq, a 90-year-old whose beard should be an archeological dig and whose cane was probably mistaken for a howitzer by his wise American captors. Those, then, are the kind of men on Guantanamo branded “uniquely dangerous” by John Ashcroft, that uniquely dangerous general with an attorney lost somewhere in his official title.
We don’t hear much about Guantanamo anymore because it has become too exact a symbol of America’s tit-for-Taliban lawlessness, of the ease with which the Bush junta has buried all pretenses of following the very conventions the United States did so much to establish in the last century, the very justice it pretends to be defending in its so-called war on terrorism. So far it has been a war of press conference victories and collateral damage, most of it in America and its colonies. Guantanamo may be an off-shore extreme of the damage. But it is only materially different from the abuses that are taking place on the mainland since the passage of the USA Patriot Act, last year’s winner of the Orwell Award for misnomers the jailing of legal residents without charge, the re-legalization of domestic spying on Americans, the standardization of government secrecy, the militarization of civilian defense, the return, like 1950s-style crew cuts and gas guzzlers, of un-American activities.
Judging from a report by Joseph Lelyveld, the former executive editor of The New York Times, in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, journalists who travel to Guantanamo to see the 600-odd prisoners of Camp Delta aren’t allowed to see much of anything but scenes from that Beckett sequel. The closest they get to prisoners is a “media observation point” behind barbed wire, 200 yards away from the nearest shipping container within which five 6.8 x 8 feet cells have been sectioned off for individual prisoners. They’re told of the Korans left in each cell like Gideon bibles. They witness a recorded call to prayer on the camp’s PA system. They might hear a prisoner’s chant. They speak with the military reservists serving there as guards, like the actor from Queens who’s also the life beneath the mascot of the New York Mets, the guy who runs a martial arts academy, also in Queens, or one of the commanding officers of Camp Delta, who’s actually the director of a veterans’ cemetery in Rhode Island. All such normal folk lending normality to a sham.
The journalists leave no better informed about the prisoners than when they’d arrived. But the purpose of the visit is not to inform. It is to shape a perception, to send journalists home with the quite accurate notion that Camp Delta is a humane place where every guard attends “cultural awareness” classes, where inmates are well fed, well clothed, and never interrogated for more than 24 hours at a time. Enough to make journalists forget that the whole thing is an illegal scheme where a mass of low-level foot-soldiers are shackled in hopes, still unfulfilled after almost a year, that some of them turn out to be the real deal. But whether or not they’re fed caviar and Koranic chants five times a day doesn’t change the fact that they’re in indefinite preventive detention the sort of detention the United States once denounced as criminal back when the specialty was more Siberian than tropical.
As surely as good sense might concede that it holds men who fit the definition of terrorists, Guantanamo is just as surely a concentration camp where law is held in contempt and self-justifying legalistic inventions smell of Stalinist-style thuggery. There is no such thing as “unlawful enemy combatants,” as the administration has branded the Guantanamo captives to put them out of all legal bounds. The words are themselves an invention outside the bounds of all laws and conventions, a set of words that have no more legitimate weight than if they’d been concocted by a White House intern, which they very well may have been. Yet the words have been swallowed whole even by most of the news media, which betray their complicit adherence to the administration’s storyline, when referring to the prisoners of Guantanamo, by avoiding all such encumbrances as “alleged,” “suspected,” “accused.” When the shapers of public opinion willingly let their sense of fairness be held captive, you cannot entirely blame the Bush junta’s autocratic instinct for running free on Guantanamo, on the mainland, or across the empire. The administration is lawless because the media, the public, the courts and of course Congress, that eunuch-in-chief, are playing along.
The concentration camp on Guantanamo should be an indictment of national drift from constitutional principles and international law. It is instead no more than “shadows on the wall of silence,” as Lelyveld described the silhouettes he barely detected inside a Camp Delta brig. If the national conscience is willing to ignore the shame of Guantanamo, it’ll ignore anything, as it very well has. Give it a listen. When it isn’t drowned out by the Pledge of Allegiance or Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American,” you can hear that wall of silence all over the country.
PIERRE TRISTAM can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.