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The decade since 9/11 has eroded – and confirmed – American values

US actions over the past 10 years have called into question America’s commitment to justice, freedom, and respect for human rights. But the decade has also confirmed how resilient the country's democratic values really are.

By William F. Schulz / September 7, 2011

Cambridge, Mass.

In May 2005, Amnesty International in London called the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay “the gulag of our times.” That heated rhetoric set off a firestorm of criticism not only from top government officials – President Bush called it an “absurd allegation” – but from traditional allies of the human rights cause like The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. The Post found the analogy overblown and said it gave the Bush administration “another excuse to dismiss valid objections to its policies as ‘hysterical.’”

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But gradually the furor died down, and the term gained currency as a mainstream reference. In the 10 years since 9/11, “the American gulag” hasn’t been the only once-unthinkable idea that became commonplace. In many ways, US action over the past decade have called into question America’s values and commitment to justice, freedom, and respect for human rights. Thankfully, it has also confirmed them.

As the head of the American section of Amnesty at the time of the “gulag of our times” comment, I was called upon to defend the choice of terms, though I had not been consulted about it beforehand. For two weeks, I appeared all over the national media making the case that the United States was indeed maintaining or suborning an archipelago of secret prisons – not just at "GITMO" but in places like Diego Garcia – with the connivance of countries like Egypt and Morocco, to whom prisoners were being “rendered.”

The analogy to the Soviet gulags may not be exact, I said, but, inasmuch as these prisoners are being held incommunicado, brutalized, and even tortured, it is not inapt either.

Within a short while I noticed something striking: The mainstream media, including New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and Harper’s magazine, began referring to the “American gulag” without batting an eye or raising a ruckus. The term was becoming almost conventional. Today, GITMO remains in service and hardly draws a thought, despite the fact that there are more than 100 prisoners still held there without trial.


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