Saturday, May 21, 2005

THERE IS AN INTERESTING article in today's New York Times about the metaphorical importance Guantanamo has taken on in the Muslim world.

For many Muslims, Guantánamo stands as a confirmation of the low regard in which they believe the United States holds them. For many non-Muslims, regardless of their feelings toward the United States, it has emerged as a symbol of American hypocrisy.
In Europe, accusations of abuse at Guantánamo, as much as the war in Iraq, have become a symbol of what many see as America's dangerous drift away from the ideals that made it a moral beacon in the post-World War II era. There is a persistent and uneasy sense that the United States fundamentally changed after September 11, and not for the better.

"The simple truth is that America's leaders have constructed at Guantánamo Bay a legal monster," the French daily, Le Monde, said in a January editorial.

No doubt the timing of this piece is part of the mainstream media's attempt to regain some credibility after a week of playing the foreman to Scott McClellan's master in the whipping of Newsweek.

For me, the timing is particularly fortuitous, because I am about a third of the way through Erik Saar's account of his six-month stint as a translator at Guantanamo. His experiences and observations confirm what many present and former detainees have said, and go a long way toward explaining why Guantanamo has come to represent what Muslims the world over feel is America's contempt for Muslims, and for their culture, religion, history, and sensibilities.

When Saar first came to Guantanamo, he believed that most, if not all, of the detainees at Guantanamo had some connection to planning 9/11. He took the coursework to learn Arabic and volunteered for Guantanamo because he believed in the mission and wanted to make a difference. What he gradually came to realize after he got there was that most of the detainees being held at Guantanamo had little or no intelligence value. There were people imprisoned there who were dangerous men and for sure had committed acts of terrorism; but they were a much smaller number than the men who were not terrorists, had no connection to Al Qaeda or knowledge of Al Qaeda's operations, and had no business being at the camp. They were there because they had been caught up in sweeps conducted by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, who were paid bounties by the Americans to bring in as many Arabs found in Afghanistan as possible. The more Arabs they gave the Americans, the more money they got -- often thousands of dollars a head. In many cases, the captives would be tortured by the Northern Alliance for days, then handed over to the Americans, and from there they would be sent to Guantanamo. Some of the detainees were there because they had been fighting with the Taliban, but they had no choice but to do so because if they hadn't, the Taliban would have killed them. These men had no useful information; no knowledge of Taliban or Al Qaeda operations. In most cases they didn't even like or support the Taliban. U.S. forces made no effort to find out who these people were before shipping them off to Cuba; to the Americans, if they were in Afghanistan, they were all one big terrorist mass. No attempt was made to separate out the men who were clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time, which they could have done very easily.

This in itself gives strength to Muslims' conviction that the United States does not think of Muslims as individual human beings.

Once at Guantanamo, the open-ended nature of their detention quickly created overwhelming despair. Many didn't have a clue why they were there. They kept asking Saar and the other translators if they could find out. Saar began hearing more and more accounts of detainees who had not even seen their interrogators for four months, or more, but continued to languish in prison. Others knew what they had done to get to Guantanamo; but just wanted to know what the prison term was and when it would be over. One prisoner, who said he had fought with the Taliban because he would have been killed if he hadn't, told Saar he was willing to serve his time in prison; he just wanted to know how long and when he would get out. Regardless of having fought unwillngly, he recognized that when you are captured on the battlefield fighting with the enemy, there are consequences. He expected to be held as a prisoner of war: but what was the sentence? When did it begin and when did it end? Would he be at Guantanamo the rest of his life? Would he die there?

Faced with realities like these, Condi Rice can make as many public relations tours to the Middle East as she can stand, and she will not change the image Muslims have of the United States. Only changes to the policies will change the image.

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