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When the Detainee is American…

The corpses pile up like sandbags along the planet’s geopolitical borders.

“Perhaps his condition deteriorated and the authorities decided it was better to release him in a coma than as a corpse.”

So said an expert on North Korea recently, quoted in the New York Times following the death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, six days after he had been released in a comatose state from a North Korean prison. He had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor a year and a half ago because he had taken a propaganda poster off the wall in his hotel. He had been with a tour group.

Oh Lord. The shocking wrongness and horror of this young man’s death — the absurdity of his arrest, the razor slash of his tears — is all over the news. Of course. Who couldn’t identify — with him, with his parents? He had been dehumanized. He had a future, but it got pulled away from him by uniformed lunatics, or so the news presents this tragedy: in the context of America and its enemies.

And there’s no enemy out there with less legitimacy than North Korea. Any time the country and its supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, show up in the news, they look, you might say, like evil cartoon characters. But they possess, as the Times story informed us, “nuclear arms and missiles capable of striking the United States.”

And this is the context of the news and the limit, apparently, of the consciousness of the U.S. media. But the arrest, abuse and death of Otto Warmbier took place in a context more complex than good vs. evil. It’s still a horrific tragedy, a wrong that should never have occurred, but the devaluing of human life isn’t simply a game played by the so-called bad guys.

International politics is mostly a game of “interests” and war. It’s a game of winning and losing, and human beings be damned. And the fact that the United States plays this game as aggressively as anyone, at home and abroad, belittles the death of American citizens who wind up innocently caught in the game themselves.

The day the young man died, for instance, a 15-year-old lawsuit on behalf of another group of wrongful-arrest victims wound up being dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2002, the Center for Constitutional Rights had brought the suit against a number of officials in the George W. Bush administration — including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and, ironically, Robert Mueller, former FBI director who is currently heading up the Trump-Russia investigation — on behalf of several hundred South Asian and Arab non-citizens who were rounded up and jailed after 9/11.

“Based solely on their race, religion, ethnicity, and immigration status,” according to the CCR, “hundreds of men were detained as ‘terrorism suspects’ and held in brutal detention conditions for the many months it took the FBI and CIA to clear them of any connection to terrorism. They were then deported. . . .

“Our clients were held in a specially-created Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit . . . in solitary confinement. They were purposefully deprived of sleep, denied contact with the outside world, beaten and verbally abused, and denied the ability to practice their religion.”

That kept us safe.

And people outside our borders had even less security and fewer rights. Some years ago the New York Times ran a rare account of one man’s experience as a Gitmo detainee and U.S. torture victim. Lakhdar Boumediene, who in 2001 was living in Bosnia with his wife and daughters and working for the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates, was accused of being a terrorist and arrested one morning, shortly after the 9/11 attack, when he showed up for work in Sarajevo. He wound up imprisoned at Guantanamo for seven years. In 2009, a federal district judge, after reviewing the U.S. case against Boumediene and four others arrested with him, found them innocent and ordered them released.

During his imprisonment, he wrote, “my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as ‘undeliverable,’ and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.”

Regarding his treatment at Gitmo: “I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget.

“I went on a hunger strike for two years because no one would tell me why I was being imprisoned. Twice each day my captors would shove a tube up my nose, down my throat and into my stomach so they could pour food into me. It was excruciating, but I was innocent and so I kept up my protest.”

The more you read about American torture practices, the worse it gets. The mostly classified 6,000-page Senate report on this topic, released in 2014, contains almost unbearable data about CIA “enhanced interrogation” methodology, including “rectal rehydration,” threats against the detainees’ children and parents, quasi-drowning, mock executions and “revved power drills” held near their heads. And many detainees died and many remain imprisoned without cause.

Reading about all this in the context of North Korea’s imprisonment and apparent murder of Otto Warmbier doesn’t lessen the hell he went through as a victim of “hostage diplomacy,” but it does, I think, change one’s sense of who the enemy is.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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