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Let Them Starve

Prisoners at Camp X-ray went on a hunger strike last week to be allowed to wear turbans. Why has the military caved in to them?

11:01 PM, Mar 3, 2002 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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AN INDELIBLE impression from the September 11 attack was the unearthly look of the southern tip of Manhattan--streets, buildings, cars, and people were engulfed in gray. Almost everything about the war on terror since then has been painted in black and white.

Terrorists are "evil." Countries in the region are "with us or against us." Bin Laden is wanted "dead or alive." Saddam Hussein "is one of the leading terrorists on the face of the Earth." Iran "is the world's leading exporter of terror." And, of course, Iran, Iraq and North Korea constitute an "axis of evil."

It's not only refreshing for Americans to hear their leader speak with strong language; this powerful rhetoric is an important foreign policy tool that puts allies and enemies on notice that with this war on terrorism we have a seriousness of purpose absent since the days of the "Evil Empire."

All of which makes even more baffling the administration's response to the latest happenings in Camp X-ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Last Tuesday, a Camp X-ray guard, citing safety concerns, prohibited a prisoner from fashioning his bed sheets into a makeshift turban. By Thursday, nearly 200 of the al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners were refusing to eat.

Never mind that the prisoners had been given copies of the Koran, Muslim clerics to lead prayers, religiously sensitive meals, prayer mats, and skull-caps to cover their heads. (All of this is itself strange, since we've been told repeatedly that the terrorists are not true Muslims, but murderous imposters, misrepresenting an otherwise peaceful religion.)

By Friday, officials at Camp X-ray had given in. They permitted prisoners to don these do-it-yourself turbans, with the caveat that the new headgear could be inspected at any time. For dozens of the prisoners, this still wasn't good enough--a point they made clear by continuing to refuse food.

In the context of the major decisions the administration makes on a daily basis, this capitulation hardly registers. But it nonetheless shows that we might need a qualifier in front of the frequent claims that administration officials "won't negotiate with terrorists."

The hunger-strike had something of a hiccup on Saturday, with more prisoners partaking in at least one of their meals that day. And why shouldn't they? Their servings that day were special, religiously sensitive meals, prepared in honor of the feast for the Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha.

Here's how the Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg described it. "On Saturday, they were surprised in their cells by a breakfast that included dates and pastries, followed by a lunch of a heaping tablespoon of lamb stew, three big spoonfuls of rice, white beans, boiled cabbage and a chunk of a honey-soaked pastry, baklava. Lunch was delivered on a paper plate with a plastic spoon, which guards collected after the meal. It was prepared at a mess hall at Marine Hill, which for a time smelled like a Middle Eastern kitchen. Besides the frozen chunks of lamb, the Pentagon flew in special spices such as cardamom and cloves for the occasion."

On Sunday, 91 of the approximately 300 detainees refused breakfast, up a bit from each of the meals on Saturday. Despite this coddling, at least 13 detainees have maintained the hunger strike since it began early last week. Several of them have been fed intravenously, at least one against his will.

But rather than the black-and-white, tough talk we've grown accustomed to from President Bush and others in his administration, we get this, from Marine Captain Alan Crouch: "We're certainly not going to allow them to harm themselves or starve."

With all of the silly criticism of Gitmo coming from our European allies, such over-sensitivity, while regrettable, is perhaps understandable. The better response is one more consistent with the strong rhetoric coming from the administration: Let them starve.

The reasons are obvious. The prisoners at X-ray are the hardest of the hard-core al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. They have conspired to kill Americans, and in some cases succeeded. More important, participating in a hunger strike is a choice. Detainees who die because they refuse food, do so by choice.

True, human rights groups and squishy allies in Europe will complain. Who cares? They're complaining now--as the detainees sit comfortably on prayer mats, reading their Korans and eating baklava.

And, yes, conspiracy theories will no doubt fly throughout the Muslim world. Again, who cares? Despite overwhelming evidence that bin Laden and his associates were behind the September 11 attacks, 8 out of 10 Muslims don't believe it.

It's been nearly six months since the attacks on September 11. Let's not forget those hours of gray.

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.