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The Gulag of Our Times?

June 23, 2005 By:
Leonard Fein
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There is an old saw: If you want to get a mule's attention, hit him on the head with a two-by-four. Now try this: Think of the word "gulag" as a two-by-four, and pick your own favorite mule. All the world's press covered the flap that resulted from Amnesty International's use of the word "gulag" to describe the American prison camp in Guantánamo Bay. As reported, Amnesty "compared" Guantánamo to the notorious Soviet gulags. In fact, however, the comparison was more nuanced than was generally recognized or reported. The relevant sentence from the May 25 speech to the Foreign Press Association in London by Amnesty's Secretary General, Irene Khan reads: "Guantánamo has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law."

Khan's comparison was quite specific. She wasn't talking about torture in Guantánamo, though she might have been. She was talking about the indefinite detention of people who may or may not be dangerous, but who in any case have not been formally charged, and whose recourse to law, as demanded by the Supreme Court, is as expansive as the eye of a needle.

But the use of the word "gulag" turns out to have been incendiary. President Bush, in his May 31 news conference, four times referred to Khan's allegation as "absurd," then went on to dismiss such accusations as the product of "anti-American propaganda."

Words have consequences. In the case of Khan's words, the consequences run in two directions: On the one hand, the word "gulag" was so outrageous that the entire Amnesty International Report, which covers the state of human rights in 149 countries and highlights the failure of national governments and international organizations to deal with human-rights violations, was tainted.

On the other hand, the word was so shocking that it begat unprecedented attention. And deservedly so.

Approximately 520 people are "detained" in Guantánamo. Their status as "enemy combatants" is, in fact, reviewed and determined by "Combat Status Review Tribunals" that consist of three military officers. The detainee has no access to counsel; the tribunals can rely on secret evidence the detainee cannot see and on evidence extracted by torture.

In the wake of the debate generated by Khan's speech, former president Jimmy Carter and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), among others, have called for the closing of Guantánamo. It has become an inflammatory embarrassment to the United States. Biden describes it as "the greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting of terrorists around the world."

Here, as cited by Assistant Minority Leader Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), is a small part of the report of one FBI agent who visited the facility: "On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times, they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or more."

He went on to say, "If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime - Pol Pot or others - that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners."

The Anti-Defamation League, ever vigilant for the misappropriation of Nazi or Holocaust references, denounced Durbin.

But the truth is that we are in Durbin's debt, for it was he who reminded us of what the Supreme Court had to say to President Abraham Lincoln when Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus: "The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances. No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions could be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government. Such a doctrine leads directly to anarchy or despotism."

Gulag? No. A Two-by-four? Yes, indeed.

Leonard Fein is a Boston-based columnist.

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