Roots of US war prisoners' rights run deep

The lack of human decency at Guantánamo Bay undermines a legacy of just treatment.

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At Guantánamo Bay this past weekend, three internees – or prisoners, or detainees, or whatever you want to call human beings jailed indefinitely without conviction and with no hope of legal recourse – committed suicide.

Navy Rear-Admiral Harry Harris, the base commander, described the suicides as "not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us."

Details on what led these men to commit their act of war are a little hard to come by thanks to the extraordinarily un-American veil of secrecy that surrounds the camp. But despite that effort, information about Gitmo has trickled out slowly – from sources in the FBI and CIA, from the International Committee of the Red Cross, from a released British prisoner, and from investigative journalists such as The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh.

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The American Civil Liberties Union has compiled thousands of documents relating to torture of prisoners in US custody, including FBI memos complaining about military abuses at Guantánamo Bay. Details include prisoners being left in straitjackets in intense sunlight with hoods over their heads, and "military guards ... slapping prisoners, stripping them, pouring cold water over them and making them stand until they got hypothermia."

At its root, the very idea of Guantánamo Bay runs headfirst into what it means to be an American.

The US has (or had) a worldwide reputation for promoting human rights. That reputation was earned by its struggle – often against itself, as was the case during the fight against slavery, and the civil rights movement – to protect individuals against systems that would otherwise mistreat them.

The roots of that reputation run deep, reaching back to the Enlightenment ideals that gave birth to the essential protections of the Constitution. But a lot of countries merely talked the talk at the time of their birth – there's a mile-wide gap between the high-flying rhetoric of the French Revolution and the blood bath that followed.

But George Washington and his compatriots took their founding principles quite seriously. On Aug. 11, 1775, Washington sent a blistering letter to a British counterpart, Thomas Gage. He complained about gravely wounded and untreated American soldiers being thrown into a jail with common criminals.

Eight days later, despite threatening to treat British soldiers with equal cruelty, Washington admitted that he could not and would not retaliate in kind, writing: "Not only your Officers, and Soldiers have been treated with a Tenderness due to Fellow Citizens, & Brethren; but even those execrable Parricides [traitors] whose Counsels & Aid have deluged their Country with Blood, have been protected from the Fury of a justly enraged People."

Imagine that; a government on the run fighting a desperate war against a hated enemy and treating captured prisoners with compassion and decency. No doubt many of the captured British troops had intelligence that might have been useful to the Revolutionary cause – still, decent treatment was the norm. In the current war on terror, that would be described as being "soft."

Alexander Hamilton, while commanding soldiers against the British, prevented what could have been a massacre. After the siege of Yorktown, one of Hamilton's captains, eager for revenge against the British, was about to run a prisoner through with his bayonet.

Hamilton stepped in personally to stop the man, and later reported proudly: "Incapable of imitating examples of barbarity and forgetting recent provocations, the soldiers spared every man who ceased to resist."

The Founding Fathers didn't treat prisoners decently solely because they were decent people. Although their writings and ideals reveal a constant and passionate interest in essential human rights, it's important to remember that they were also pragmatists. They understood that the Revolutionary cause had to take and hold the moral high ground in order to rally popular support and exhaust the British giant. And they knew that their necks were very literally on the line were they to be captured by the British. Mistreatment of British soldiers would come back on their heads a thousandfold.

Times have changed, of course, and now it's the US that holds the upper hand from a military perspective. There is no longer any fear among US leaders that they personally will suffer the effects of cruel treatment of prisoners, and so they feel far more comfortable ordering the sort of "extraordinary" measures of interrogation and detainment that led to the Gitmo suicides.

What they overlook, of course, is that the moral high ground is still there to be taken – or lost. And as long as "Abu Ghraib" and "Guantánamo Bay" remain in the international lexicon, tyrants around the world can laugh off criticism of their actions coming from American leaders – after all, America understands that desperate times call for inhumane measures, right?

It can be argued, of course, that captured British soldiers are hardly equivalent to the type of men held at Guantánamo Bay. The soldiers fought in uniform; the detainees at Gitmo were terrorists, working undercover. Washington would have had them hanged. True enough – except that we don't actually know how many of them were terrorists working undercover. Most were detained on evidence too flimsy to hold up under trial, according to declassified documents from the Department of Defense and reporting in the staunchly nonpartisan National Journal. The evidence suggests that many – perhaps most – of the detainees are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You don't have to be a historian or political scientist to realize that it's high time the US government took a step back toward its founding principles and shut down Guantánamo Bay. Accountability for those who loosened the restraints of human decency, and a bit of reparations for everyone unjustly imprisoned also might be the civilized thing to do. In fact, it would be downright American.

James Norton is a former Middle East editor of The Christian Science Monitor and the author of "Saving General Washington: The Right Wing Assault on America's Founding Principles."

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