A Prison We Need to Escape

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

When I hear U.S. officials describe the suicides of three Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay last Saturday as "asymmetric warfare" and "a good PR move," I know it's time to close that camp -- not just because of what it's doing to the prisoners but because of how it is dehumanizing the American captors.

The American officials spoke of the dead prisoners as if they inhabited a different moral universe. That's what war does: People stop seeing their enemies as human beings and consign them to a different category. It was discomfiting to see this indifference stated so bluntly, and subsequent U.S. statements tactfully disavowed the initial ones.

We might call it the Guantanamo syndrome -- this process of mutual corrosion and dehumanization. The antidote is to get inside Guantanamo, to see the prisoners as individuals and begin to make distinctions. That's why due process for the detainees is so important -- because it will allow courts to distinguish between prisoners who are vicious killers and deserve the harshest punishment, and those who may be innocent of any terrorist crimes. We need to stop seeing everyone in the same orange suits.

A start in re-humanizing these prisoners is a remarkable book called "Enemy Combatant" by Moazzam Begg, a British-born prisoner who was released in 2005 after nearly two years in solitary confinement at Guantanamo. The book appeared this year in Britain, and an American edition will be published in September by the New Press. It came to my attention because the publisher asked me to write a brief foreword.

Begg is a radical Muslim, but there is no evidence he was an active member of al-Qaeda or that he engaged in terrorist operations. He grew up in a Pakistani family in Birmingham, England, attended a Jewish primary school and as a kid listened to UB40. He drifted toward radical Islam as a young man and began raising money for Muslim fighters in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. In 1998 he traveled to Pakistan, and in 2001 he moved his family to Kabul, where he supported the Taliban.

Begg was seized in Islamabad in January 2002. Though he was never charged with any crime, he was held for three years -- at Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan and then at Guantanamo. In one early interrogation at Bagram, he says, an FBI agent told him: "After 9/11, Moazzam, the rules changed. We have new laws, and according to them, you're already convicted." What's chilling about that line is that it was essentially true.

"It is considered a sin in Islam to despair," he writes, but after he was transferred to a solitary cell at Guantanamo in 2003, Begg began to crack. The guards seemed obsessed with preventing suicide. Begg received an odd plastic blanket, for example, and later learned that it was a "suicide blanket" that couldn't be torn up to make a noose. When guards found paint chipped in his cell, they worried that he was trying to poison himself.

A prison psychiatrist explained to Begg that there had indeed been suicide attempts: "She told me there were people who'd lost all sense of time, reason, reality; people who had been kept in a solitary cell, completely blocked off with no window, eight foot by six, like mine, but with absolutely nobody to speak to, nobody. She said some of them just ended up talking to themselves." A despairing Begg writes at one point to his father back in England: "I still don't know what crime I am supposed to have committed. . . . I am in a state of desperation and I am beginning to lose the fight against depression and hopelessness."

What gives me hope -- not just for Begg but for all of us -- is that he never lost his humanity at Guantanamo. He talked constantly with his American guards, asking where they were from, what they wanted out of life. When guards made racist remarks, he shamed them by answering back in perfect English. He describes a guard named Jennifer from Selma, Ala., who painted her fingernails black and dressed like a Goth on weekends, and who once confided: "I don't know if they've ever accused you of anything. But I know y'all can't be guilty." Begg says of her: "She left me with a lasting impression. All Americans were not the same."

When we think about Guantanamo, we need to follow that same rule. The prisoners aren't all the same, except in one sense: They are human beings and, as such, they have basic human rights. That recognition is our own escape from Guantanamo.


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