Gitmo worries

Posted: Jun 16, 2006 11:05 PM
Suicide can be an effective psychological weapon. In Western eyes, suicide is the ultimate singularist affirmation. This was brought dramatically to mind by an event of 1946. After one year of elaborate public examination, the Western powers said they were ready to hang the 11 Nazis who had been given the death sentence in Nuremberg. When Hermann Goering was discovered dead from a poison tablet he had got hold of, there was dismay. United Press, knocked off kilter, sent out the famous flash, "Goering Cheats Death by Committing Suicide."

The next general experience of suicide as a political weapon came in Vietnam. Goering was pleading no political cause when he took the poison -- he was merely avoiding the ultimate indignity of hanging. The Vietnamese who took their own lives were protesting the Diem government's anti-Buddhist activities. They caused great consternation in America, and of course South Vietnam, and brought on the beginning of the national self-doubt which would end only in 1975 when the last GI was pulled out of Indochina.

There is a call now to clear out of Guantanamo, notwithstanding our formal historical right to remain there. The spotlight glares with special intensity after the deaths of the three men who contrived their synchronized suicides.

We have been in Guantanamo since 1898, and the anomaly survives, our Gibraltar in the Caribbean. The British, in a comparable situation, have had several opportunities to vacate their Iberian foothold and return the acreage to the Spanish. But they have reasoned that their little promontory at the throat of the Mediterranean could serve a strategic purpose in the future.

In Guantanamo, our formal understanding, for over a hundred years, has been that the United States is permanently at liberty to maintain a naval base at the eastern end of the island, and a coaling station. It was not foreseen that Guantanamo would become a useful place to keep prisoners of complicated lineage.

But it has conveniently served that purpose. The U.S. caretakers have been careful to discourage any charge of mistreatment. A Belgian human-rights outfit actually went so far as to opine, after inspecting the base, that Guantanamo is a "model prison, where people are better treated than in Belgian prisons." The difficulty arises from the discomfort we feel over men sequestered in a U.S. naval base without formal prospects of release. We did not worry about the German and Italian prisoners of war held in sundry army posts in the United States because their sentences were finite: When the war ended, they would go home, which they did, giving rise only to the problem of how to handle those who petitioned to stay.

There is no consummation of the sentencing of these detainees, most of them scooped up from Afghanistan during and after the bitter war in 2001. We have been thoroughly entangled by technicalities. Accommodations made first in the U.S. Constitution, then in the Geneva Conventions, then in the U.S. military code, were not applicable. The detainees weren't subjects of any government with which treaties had been made. Trying individual detainees for their conduct in Afghanistan was all but impossible without compromising anti-terrorist efforts. The detainees cannot be given traditional protections because the rights to counsel and cross-examination of accusers cannot be effected.

Inevitably, a U.S. judge got into the act, ruling two years ago that the "regularly constituted court" clause in the Geneva Conventions has to be understood as conveying all rights, procedural and substantive, that are prescribed in the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice. Judge James Robertson ordered the federal agents at work in Guantanamo to stop, on the grounds that they were in violation of Section 839 of Title 10 of the military code, which states that "proceedings shall be conducted in the presence of the accused." He was overruled on appeal, and the case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

It is a wrenching subject because Americans understand, on the one hand, the distinctive character of the prisoners in Guantanamo. But Americans are not reconciled to the idea of indeterminate detention with no procedural rights except as vouchsafed by the commander-in-chief of the United States.

Mr. Bush has maintained a perfectly defensible position. But he will need to make more persuasive what he considers the strategic role we are exercising in Gitmo, stressing always the contrast between how we do things, and how things are done in that part of the island ruled by Fidel Castro.