American Prison Camp
New York Times Editorial
October 16, 2003
Committee of the Red Cross recently took the unusual step of publicly
criticizing the United States over the confinement of the roughly
660 detainees at the Guantánamo naval base in Cuba. After
visiting the base, Red Cross officials said there was a "worrying
deterioration" in the mental condition of the detainees,
largely because they have no idea how long they will be held or
what will happen to them.
Other reports are
equally dismaying: there have been 32 suicide attempts by 27 detainees.
And while it is true that there have been recent, worrying reports
about infiltration — three staff members, a Muslim chaplain
and two Arabic interpreters, have been charged with crimes ranging
from disobeying orders to espionage — this does not relieve
the administration of the obligation to treat the detainees with
Why are the men still
without trial, still without rights? The Bush administration has
two justifications. One is, in essence, self-defense: in the war
on terrorism, in which the security of the United States is in
mortal danger, normal rules cannot apply. The other, more narrow,
is about legality: the Taliban and Al Qaeda are not combatants
in traditional or legal terms, and are therefore not eligible
for the protections due to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.
Both arguments miss
the point. The men held at Guantánamo are prisoners of
the United States. While they may not have the same rights as
American citizens, they should be treated in the highest tradition
of American justice. That means they must be given some forum
in which to contest their imprisonment, and there must be reasonable
rules and some individualized proof for the detentions to be upheld.
That the Pentagon
should be allowed to run this prison camp in total secrecy and
in utter disdain of what America stands for should be heavy on
the conscience of all Americans, whether libertarian or liberal,
Republican or Democrat. For this reason alone, the detainees should
be brought to justice or released.
offered by the administration are equally unpersuasive. The argument
that the detainees are not prisoners of war because they are not
uniformed members of a regular armed force has no foundation in
the Geneva Conventions.
As for the claim
of self-defense, it simply cannot be applied indefinitely. We
accept that there are extraordinary times — Sept. 11 was
one of them — when a government must take extraordinary
measures to protect the nation. But with Guantánamo, the
administration has gone far beyond the needs of the moment, seeking
to ensure in every way possible that the prisoners remain indefinitely
beyond the reach of law or scrutiny.