Closing Time at Guantanamo

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

We'd better not turn away just yet from the suicides of those three detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The rest of the world clearly isn't ready to move on. And with good reason.

In many newspapers around the globe "Guantanamo" is much more than the name of a beautiful harbor on Cuba's southern coast. It has become shorthand for a whole litany of American excesses in George W. Bush's "global war on terror," the most visible example of how the United States blithely ignores the values of due process and rule of law that it so aggressively preaches, if necessary at the point of a gun.

U.S. officials have portrayed the three men -- Ali Abdullah Ahmed of Yemen, and Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani of Saudi Arabia -- as irredeemable jihadists whose deaths were an act of war. Ahmed was allegedly a "mid- to high-level al-Qaeda operative," Utaybi a "militant" recruiter for jihad, Zahrani a "front-line" warrior for the Taliban. One State Department official called their deaths by hanging "a good P.R. move," and while those words were quickly disavowed by higher-ups, the general reaction from the U.S. government has been something pretty close to "good riddance."

For all we know, these men might have been the evil miscreants our government says they were. Since our government wouldn't describe whatever evidence it claimed to have against them, it's impossible to tell. I think any reasonable observer would conclude it's also quite possible that these men were clinically depressed after being held for years in steel-mesh cells without legal recourse, without even formal charges, and that they simply sought the only kind of release they could possibly achieve. At least one of them, Ahmed, had been on a hunger strike for most of this year, which would have meant that guards regularly force-fed him through tubes stuck down his nose. What would that do to your state of mind?

The point here isn't to go all bleeding-heart over three men who may well have been the type who gleefully slaughter innocents in the name of a warped religiousness. The point is that when our government mocks transparency and tries to conduct this war of ideas in the shadows, away from prying eyes, we defeat ourselves.

Four journalists -- from the Charlotte Observer, the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times -- who happened to be at Guantanamo on other business and whose reporting could have independently confirmed the Pentagon's version of the suicides were unceremoniously put on a plane home last Wednesday. The Pentagon's rationale -- that it was unfair to allow the reporters to stay, because others who wanted to come and cover the story were being turned away -- is one of those masterpieces of faux logic for which Donald Rumsfeld is justly famous. Wouldn't the solution be to let other journalists in, rather than kick those four out?

How silly of me. The White House and the Pentagon have fought tooth and nail to keep the prison camp at Guantanamo cloaked in deepest obscurity. They didn't want to tell us who was being held there. They still give us only the sketchiest information about why individuals are being detained. They just say, basically, "these are bad people," and don't give us the information that would back up that judgment.

The administration doesn't want to call the detainees prisoners of war, because that would accord them some rights under international law, and it doesn't want to treat them as criminal suspects since that would give them rights under U.S. law. So they remain "enemy combatants" for whom the rules seem to be whatever we decide at any given time.

The president's lament that he can't find countries that will take some of the Guantanamo detainees is, frankly, lame. It may well be true that some of these people are hard to get rid of. But any way you look at it, arbitrary, indefinite detention without formal legal charges is an abandonment of the very ideals this country is supposedly fighting to spread throughout the world. We're long past the point where the U.S. government's clear obligation is to give the detainees a proper day in court, with effective legal representation and access to the evidence against them.

And we're long past the point where the government needs to show the world what's happening at Guantanamo. Instead of hurrying to expel reporters, the Pentagon should invite one and all to witness the orderly, legal process of emptying and shutting down a prison that is doing this nation much more harm than good.

The writer will take questions at 1 p.m. today onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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