The Magazine

An American Gulag?

From the June 13, 2005 issue: Human rights groups test the limits of moral equivalency.

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By KENNETH ANDERSON
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"It's an absurd allegation," said President Bush. Vice President Cheney said he was "offended by it." Donald Rumsfeld said the charge was "reprehensible." And Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard B. Myers called it "absolutely irresponsible."

With the release of its 2005 human rights report, Amnesty International got all the headlines that even an organization that lives for press attention could possibly hope to get. It did so by lobbing rhetorical hand grenades--each delivered in press statements but, revealingly and characteristically, not found in the text of the report itself. A strategy, that is, of maximum press exposure today for charges that do not actually figure in the document that will constitute AI's historical archive tomorrow. "Who controls the past controls"--well, no doubt Amnesty's Inner Party knows that particular aphorism and its provenance.

First came AI secretary general Irene Khan's press statement releasing the report in London, which announced that the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo "has become the gulag of our times." That she meant the word gulag in its original sense--Stalin's camps in the Soviet Union through which millions upon millions of political prisoners passed and where many died--is underlined by the reference in her next sentence to Guantanamo evoking "images of Soviet repression." When the Washington Post editorial page, among many others, refused to countenance a comparison of such profound incomparables, she responded in a letter accusing it, astonishingly, of quibbling over semantics.

The "gulag" characterization was accompanied, however, by another allegation, nearly unnoticed in the press, yet if anything more outrageous in its implications. So-called "ghost detentions" by the United States, Khan said, do not merely evoke "images of" Stalin's camps. They actually "bring back" the "practice of 'disappearances' so popular with Latin American dictators in the past." Amnesty thus accuses the United States government of "disappearing"--kidnapping and secretly murdering--people. On what evidence? Well, none in Amnesty's actual report--but, in the press conference, it was said to be on the basis of not reporting all detainees, even ones who are not (in a perfectly defensible even if, to Amnesty, disagreeable reading of the Geneva Conventions) actual POWs who must be reported to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Then there was the remarkable call by William Schulz, Amnesty International's USA executive director, in his own press conference, for foreign governments to investigate and arrest U.S. officials, should they venture abroad, for their alleged complicity in torture. Apparently very serious stuff--the media certainly thought so. "Torture," however, in AI's expansive view includes even the mere holding of a detainee "incommunicado." Moreover, since AI apparently regards all the detainees as entitled to full POW protections under the Third Geneva Convention, any departure from mere "name, rank, and serial number" questions is, for it, grounds for foreign governments to arrest U.S. officials and military officers for war crimes. Suffice it to say that the United States does not agree that all detainees are entitled to Geneva protections, and to the extent that something as flimsy as this is the basis for Amnesty's call for foreign governments to make arrests of U.S. officials, those foreign governments might want to be very, very careful.

Schulz offered a long list of senior and junior officials, current and former, starting with President Bush, that he characterized as "high-level architects of torture." It was a charge dutifully, indeed enthusiastically, repeated by a media in thrall to its own predetermined "torture narrative" and therefore indifferent to asking AI, for example, what it actually views as torture. Or whether if captured alive, for example, terrorist mastermind Abu Zarqawi would likewise, in AI's view, be entitled to the full protections of the Third Geneva Convention even as his organization blows up more Iraqis in suicide bombings. "The apparent high-level architects of torture should think twice before planning their next vacation to places like Acapulco or the French Riviera," Schulz said, "because they may find themselves under arrest as Augusto Pinochet famously did in London in 1998."