June 3, 2005
The self-flagellation over reports of abuse at Guantanamo Bay has
turned into a full-scale panic. There are calls for the United States,
with all this worldwide publicity, to simply shut the place down.
A terrible idea. One does not run and hide simply because allegations
have been made. If the charges are unverified, as they overwhelmingly
are in this case, then they need to be challenged. The United States
ought to say what it has and has not done, and not simply surrender to
Moreover, shutting down Guantanamo will solve nothing. We will capture
more terrorists, and we will have to interrogate them, if not at
Guantanamo then somewhere else. There will then be reports from that
somewhere else that will precisely mirror the charges coming out of
Guantanamo. What will we do then? Keep shutting down one detention
center after another?
The self-flagellation has gone far enough. We know that al Qaeda
operatives are trained to charge torture when they are in detention,
and specifically to charge abuse of the Koran to inflame fellow
prisoners on the inside and potential sympathizers on the outside.
In March the Navy inspector general reported that, out of about 24,000
interrogations at Guantanamo, there were seven confirmed cases of
abuse, "all of which were relatively minor." In the eyes of history,
compared to any other camp in any other war, this is an astonishingly
small number. Two of the documented offenses involved "female
interrogators who, on their own initiative, touched and spoke to
detainees in a sexually suggestive manner." Not exactly the gulag.
The most inflammatory allegations have been not about people but about
mishandling the Koran. What do we know here? The Pentagon reports
(Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, May 26) -- all these breathless "scoops" come
from the U.S. government's own investigations of itself -- that of 13
allegations of Koran abuse, five were substantiated, of which two were
most likely accidental.
Let's understand what mishandling means. Under the rules the Pentagon
later instituted at Guantanamo, proper handling of the Koran means
using two hands and wearing gloves when touching it. Which means that
if any guard held the Koran with one hand or had neglected to put on
gloves, this would be considered mishandling.
On the scale of human crimes, where, say, 10 is the killing of 2,973
innocent people in one day and 0 is jaywalking, this ranks as perhaps a
Moreover, what were the Korans doing there in the first place? The very
possibility of mishandling Korans arose because we gave them to each
prisoner. What kind of crazy tolerance is this? Is there any other
country that would give a prisoner precisely the religious text that
that prisoner and those affiliated with him invoke to justify the
slaughter of innocents? If the prisoners had to have reading material,
I would have given them the book "Portraits 9/11/01" -- vignettes of
the lives of those massacred on Sept. 11.
Why this abjectness on our part? On the very day the braying mob in
Pakistan demonstrated over the false Koran report in Newsweek, a
suicide bomber blew up an Islamic shrine in Islamabad, destroying not
just innocent men, women and children, but undoubtedly many Korans as
well. Not a word of condemnation. No demonstrations.
Even greater hypocrisy is to be found here at home. Civil libertarians,
who have been dogged in making sure that FBI-collected Guantanamo
allegations are released to the world, seem exquisitely sensitive to
mistreatment of the Koran. A rather selective scrupulousness. When an
American puts a crucifix in a jar of urine and places it in a museum,
civil libertarians rise immediately to defend it as free speech. And
when someone makes a painting of the Virgin Mary, smears it with
elephant dung and adorns it with porn, not only is that free speech, it
is art -- deserving of taxpayer funding and an ACLU brief supporting
the Brooklyn Museum when the mayor freezes its taxpayer subsidy.
Does the Koran deserve special respect? Of course it does. As do the
Bibles destroyed by the religious police in Saudi Arabia and the Torahs
blown up in various synagogues from Tunisia to Turkey.
Should the United States apologize? If there were mishandlings of the
Koran, we should say so and express regret. And that should be in the
context of our remarkably humane and tolerant treatment of the
Guantanamo prisoners, and in the context of a global war on terrorism
(for example, the campaign in Afghanistan) conducted with a
discrimination and a concern for civilian safety rarely seen in the
annals of warfare.
Then we should get over it, stop whimpering and start defending