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Al Qaeda's Trip to Paradise

Some of the terrorists who were taken prisoner in Afghanistan are being brought to Guantanamo Bay. There won't be any black-eyed virgins, but it's nicer than home.

11:01 PM, Jan 9, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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IN A KIND OF apotheosis of multiculturalism, the choicest al Qaeda suspects captured in the war on terrorism are about to take up residence under the American flag, at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. Navy base at the eastern tip of Cuba that has incongruously stayed in operation throughout the four decades of Castro's Communist rule. There, side by side--though separated by prison walls and the base perimeter--will coexist young men whose heads are filled respectively with the intoxication of jihad plus the trauma of defeat; newly burnished American patriotism; and whatever propaganda Castro's impoverished police state reserves for its trusted Frontier Brigade, which mans the only Cold War border in the hemisphere.

It's a border still to this day fortified against defectors with Soviet-style minefields, sirens, and searchlights. Almost every night there's an incident of some kind at the border, says Patrick Moore, an assistant professor of history at the University of West Florida who visited Guantanamo in August and is researching its history. "Sometimes it's just a rabbit hitting a mine," he says. "But the Frontier Brigade is pretty effective. They stop 95 percent of would-be defectors."

Away from the border, the base is normally peaceful. Residing in its 45-square-miles (most of that area covered by the waters of Guantanamo Bay) are military personnel and dependents, civilian employees, and contract workers from Jamaica and the Philippines, about 3,000 people in total, with all the attendant necessaries of life. The base newspaper, the weekly Guantanamo Bay Gazette, publishes the lunch menu for the local school. Under "What's Happening," the current issue lists a karaoke night at the Oasis Teen Center and free kayaking lessons at the Marina every Saturday and Sunday.

The arrival of the detainees from halfway around the world shouldn't directly affect those not interrogating or guarding them or otherwise involved in their care. The newcomers are currently expected to number in the hundreds--not tens of thousands, like the Haitians (1991-94) and Cubans (1994-96) housed at "Gitmo" in the last decade. Those economic and political refugees (and some criminals unloaded from Castro's jails) were put up in tent cities that sometimes became tense cities. People complained of boredom and poor conditions. They didn't like being told what to do by military guards. There were political frictions, too, even riots and a few suicide attempts, before the Haitians were mostly repatriated to "democratic" Haiti, and the Cubans were mostly admitted to the United States.

The new arrivals, high-security prisoners, will hardly be in a position to make demands. Besides, after the crumbling towns and dank caves of Afghanistan, they should find conditions at Guantanamo luxurious. They will trade frigid deserts and mountains for a bright, balmy Caribbean winter. Gitmo also is desert, known for its cactus and iguanas; locals are urged to conserve water, even to pour used water on their gardens instead of down the drain. But there are sea breezes year round. The detainees will be provided proper sanitation, medical care, and a Koranically correct diet, say officials, along with access to the International Red Cross.

Contrast all this with the Taliban's treatment of prisoners--the five months' crippling torture meted out, for example, to a Kabul man suspected of having converted to Christianity. The Washington Post's reporting suggests that the man, who worked in a warehouse of the International Red Cross, was guilty only of liking to read and owning some books.

Any Gitmo detainees familiar with the Taliban's jails will probably think they've gone to paradise.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.