Monday, June 06, 2005

What to do with the Bastille of our times


When Laura Bush visited a school in Egypt, all the teachers and all the students were replaced by others who didn’t look so... poor.

The Chinese consul for political affairs in Australia tried to defect, offering to tell all about Chinese spies operating in Oz, but was turned down. I don’t know if anything’s behind this other than the Aussie government being scared of China, but there might be an interesting story here.

Eric Umansky
argues that closing Guantanamo might make the US even less transparent and accountable, while failing to actually reduce the amount of torture or the number of secretly held prisoners, and increasing the resort to “rendition.” What he’s really worried about though, and rightly, is that without the symbol, the world (and especially Americans) will lose all interest in the treatment of prisoners (Umansky says shutting down Gitmo would be only a symbolic victory, but he values it precisely for its symbolic value). Guantanamo is the brand name for torture news; a generic won’t capture the same share of America’s attention span (nearly a year and a half after the Abu Ghraib revelations, when we were told Abu Ghraib would be handed over to the Iraqis or possibly razed, neither has happened and no one pays much attention to what happens inside its walls anymore). Guantanamo does have propaganda value, but sometimes you just have to storm the Bastille because it’s the right thing to do. Rumsfeld, Gonzales and the other supporters of “stress positions” and detention without trial claim to be pragmatists; those of us on the other side must be idealistic and absolutist in our rejection of torture.

One positive about Guantanamo having become another of those place names that stands in for historical events, like Vietnam, Hiroshima, and Intercourse, Pennsylvania, is that it becomes less usable for other purposes. In the early 1990s, Bush the Elder held Haitian refugees intercepted at sea there; like his son, he refused Amnesty International requests to interview the prisoners and claimed that American political asylum laws didn’t apply there. It will be a long time before Gitmo can be put to such a use again.

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