Facing a New Kind of Enemy
The United States faces an existential threat, one that threatens society to its very core. Militants are jailed by a War President. After they are jailed, there are meetings to decide how to keep them, meetings about what to charge them with. They are subjected to harsh conditions. Public opinion runs high against these people. Militants on Hunger Strike! the papers proclaim. The U.S. is required by a treaty to treat prisoners of war humanely, but these are not prisoners of war.
In their prison, the "high value detainees" are subject to solitary confinement, twenty four hours a day. They are denied access to lawyers, while lawyers fight to file habeas corpus petitions for them. They are stripped, they are slapped, reports surface that a detainee has been beaten unconscious and left on the cell floor, untreated. They are shackled by their wrists to the ceiling and left there overnight. Meanwhile, a prisoner with a heart attack is ignored, and denied medical attention, and dies. Meanwhile, immigrants and minorities are subject to some of the same privations. The health care for the poor is so bad that people go to prison to obtain medical procedures. Members of some immigrant groups are castigated and demonstrated against.
The detainees start to hunger strike. The alleged leader, already in solitary confinement, is subjected to a long interrogation, psychiatrists are asked by the government to help break the detainees. The President is kept at least nominally informed of the tactics, and makes public statements that the tactics are humane and gentle. The high value detainees are subject to sleep deprivation, bright lights are shone in their solitary confinement cells once an hour to keep them from sleeping. The hunger strike continues, they are subjected to conscious orogastric intubation, which causes gagging and vomiting. They are subjected to conscious nasogastric intubation, more vomiting. Their nasal passages and throats are raw and swollen. Still, public sentiment is that they have attacked the country at its core, and after all, the country is at war, the President is seen as right to deal with the militants. The Militants, the Militants, the threat to society they pose.
Word seeps out to the press about the real conditions under which they are held. Terms like "brutality", "inhumane", begin to be used. The forced intubations, the bite blocks, the shackling start to be criticized. Judges rule that they are being held illegally without charge. Words like "torturous treatment" surface.
In the end, the War President capitulates, and the militants, still castigated by the press while their treatment is condemned, are released. Somehow, the existential threat is no longer operative.
Alice Paul, and the other "Militants", members of the National Women's Party, are released from Occoquan Workhouse. The year is 1917.
Losing Our Nerve
This story is told in detail by Doris Stevens in the book Jailed For Freedom, complete with notes written by many of those jailed. It was popularized in the HBO movie Iron Jawed Angels. The headlines and some comments can be searched at the New York Times website archive search, try "Alice Paul" in the 1851-1980 archive advanced search, put it November 1, 1917 to December 31, 1917, and you'll see the headlines about the brutal treatment, try a month earlier and use "militants" and you'll see how they were characterized. The Washington Post site contains more headlines, searched similarly. It is not whatsoever an exaggeration that many considered the suffrage movement a threat to the very core of society.
It feels strange to use this story in relation to treatment in Guantanamo or Bagram (or Abu Ghraib, or Black Sites, or...). It's similar, but from the opposite direction, to the feeling that Philippe Sands talks about when he started to make comparisons to the Nazis and the trial of Josef Altstötter and Others, at Nuremburg (The Torture Team, ch. 4). In Sands' case, the comparison of the offenses of the U.S. government to the horrors of the Nazis is in itself difficult and repulsive. "I felt uncomfortable even making that kind of comparison, but what struck me as a point of connection was the underlying issue of principle..." (p.25).
I feel somewhat the same discomfort here, there is a very big difference between suffragists arrested for picketing a war time president, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who in a different world might have been tried in a proper court with international venue, and convicted of heinous mass murder. But we are not in a different world, and most of the 27,000 or so of the prisoners picked up by the United States are thought, even by their interrogators, to have done nothing.
The reason the comparison needs to be made is that it is striking, and it dispels a favorite argument beyond doubt. All the treatment above occurred as stated, I only embellished to the point of referring to the suffragists as "detainees" and to Ms. Paul and some others as "high valued". All the treatment was quite tolerated by an irate public, as long as it was in the shadows, and the government assured the people that the prisoners were being treated well, and even liked the way they were being treated. The handwritten notes, the equivalent of the Abu Ghraib photographs or leaked Red Cross documents at Guantanamo, or coroner's reports at Bagram, got out to the press with the real story, and the American public reacted with revulsion against inhumanity and outrages upon personal dignity.
That was back in the day. According to arguments made by many in the administration, and by many frequently since Vietnam and again during this conflict, is that America has lost its nerve. America is hemmed in by international meddling, the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations. America knew how to defend freedom back in the day. America didn't shrink from harsh tactics. Call up Teddy Roosevelt, call up FDR. Talk about making sacrifices about existential threats. America is at war. Those people have no rights, show me where they deserve rights.
Actually, back in the day, once the truth about inhumane treatment surfaced, it was all over for the those who were treating the militants as an existential threat to be dealt with harshly. Because back in the day, people believed in human dignity. And that did not include harsh treatment, it did not include slamming heads against bedstands, it did not include forced intubation and shackling, or sleep deprivation and long solitary confinement. It did not include preventing all contact with the outside world, it did not include denial of habeas corpus rights, or detention for crimes never proven. Back in the day, even a war time president commanding the military in a declared war was not entitled to treat human beings, even those with less rights, that way.
And as for the comparison between a non-violent Quaker Ph.D. political scientist U.S. citizen campaigning for a just cause and islamofascist mass murderers who hate our way of life and threaten our freedom and democracy? Human rights are the very most basic of civil rights to which any human being is entitled. In order to espouse them, one must grant them to every human being. Withholding them does not punish the prisoner, it taints the nation that does so. This nation will never have the satisfaction, the closure, of seeing the person who conceived of and orchestrated the September 11th attacks tried in an internationally recognized court and duly convicted on evidence gathered by methods that were above reproach.
When the full truth comes out about what has been done to any of the 150,000 prisoners that have passed through U.S. custody in the global war on terror is known, we will see whether we have the decency to admit wrong and make amends that people had. Back in the day, back before the country lost its nerve.