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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Roots of US War Prisoners' Rights Run Deep

MINNEAPOLIS -- At Guantánamo Bay this past weekend, three internees - or prisoners, or detainees, or whatever you want to call human beings jailed indefinitely without conviction and with no hope of legal recourse - committed suicide.

Navy Rear-Admiral Harry Harris, the base commander, described the suicides as "not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us."

Details on what led these men to commit their act of war are a little hard to come by thanks to the extraordinarily un-American veil of secrecy that surrounds the camp. But despite that effort, information about Gitmo has trickled out slowly - from sources in the FBI and CIA, from the International Committee of the Red Cross, from a released British prisoner, and from investigative journalists such as The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh.

The American Civil Liberties Union has compiled thousands of documents relating to torture of prisoners in US custody, including FBI memos complaining about military abuses at Guantánamo Bay. Details include prisoners being left in straitjackets in intense sunlight with hoods over their heads, and "military guards ... slapping prisoners, stripping them, pouring cold water over them and making them stand until they got hypothermia."

At its root, the very idea of Guantánamo Bay runs headfirst into what it means to be an American.

The US has (or had) a worldwide reputation for promoting human rights. That reputation was earned by its struggle - often against itself, as was the case during the fight against slavery, and the civil rights movement - to protect individuals against systems that would otherwise mistreat them.

The roots of that reputation run deep, reaching back to the Enlightenment ideals that gave birth to the essential protections of the Constitution. But a lot of countries merely talked the talk at the time of their birth - there's a mile-wide gap between the high-flying rhetoric of the French Revolution and the blood bath that followed.

But George Washington and his compatriots took their founding principles quite seriously. On Aug. 11, 1775, Washington sent a blistering letter to a British counterpart, Thomas Gage. He complained about gravely wounded and untreated American soldiers being thrown into a jail with common criminals.

Eight days later, despite threatening to treat British soldiers with equal cruelty, Washington admitted that he could not and would not retaliate in kind, writing: "Not only your Officers, and Soldiers have been treated with a Tenderness due to Fellow Citizens, & Brethren; but even those execrable Parricides [traitors] whose Counsels & Aid have deluged their Country with Blood, have been protected from the Fury of a justly enraged People."

Imagine that; a government on the run fighting a desperate war against a hated enemy and treating captured prisoners with compassion and decency. No doubt many of the captured British troops had intelligence that might have been useful to the Revolutionary cause - still, decent treatment was the norm. In the current war on terror, that would be described as being "soft." --------------
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