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.’”
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.
That is but one of the ways in which practices that would previously have been considered beyond the pale have become normative since 9/11. Whole body scans at airports, the New York City police collaborating with the CIA to spy on Muslim Americans, Predator missile strikes against American citizens (radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen) – all this has become almost routine. According to a Red Cross study, 60 percent of American teenagers say it is acceptable to torture prisoners of war, and more than half approve of killing them in cases where they had killed Americans. The Obama administration has maintained the option of “rendering” prisoners to foreign countries for interrogation.
But in other respects, the past decade has witnessed the reinforcement of traditional norms. The Supreme Court set the pace in 2004 with its landmark decisions in Rasul v. Bush and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, ruling that foreign nationals, even those labeled “illegal enemy combatants,” must have access to the courts to challenge their detention. Some of the most egregious provisions of the USA Patriot Act were modified in reauthorization. President Obama issued an executive order unequivocally outlawing the use of torture.
And former Vice President Cheney’s impassioned defense of waterboarding continues to draw rebuke from notable Republicans such as the party’s 2008 Presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, who as recently as May 2011 condemned such “enhanced interrogation techniques” as “indisputably torture” and disavowed the notion that their use had led to the discovery of Osama Bin Laden.
Perhaps the most notable changes over the past decade have taken place in the area of American foreign policy. Determined to assert American primacy, the Bush administration vowed that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists;" launched two wars; withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council; and pitted “old Europe,” which had dared to resist American unilateralism, against a more compliant “new Europe.” This set of actions had the effect of casting suspicion even upon constructive elements of the Bush administration policy, such as efforts to promote democracy in the developing world (for example the Millennium Challenge Fund).
Fortunately, however, the United States has in recent years adopted a far less bellicose approach to international relations, re-engaging with the UN Human Rights Council, consulting regularly with its allies, and beginning the process of withdrawal from both Iraq and Afghanistan. But human rights remain largely an afterthought in US foreign policy, as witness the Obama administration’s ham-handed early reactions to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the political resistance to US intervention, even on behalf of genuine struggles against tyranny, such as in Libya.
We have been told repeatedly and no doubt will be reminded again as we approach its 10-year anniversary that 9/11 “changed everything.” We’ll be reminded that the US reaction to it, both domestically and overseas, was born of a unique combination of fear and intransigence. The truth is that, in the face of great crises, the US has always oscillated between suspicion and liberty at home and assertiveness and multilateralism abroad. This decade has been no exception.
In this sense, the last 10 years have taught us not only how fragile our democratic values are but also how resilient. The past decade has shown us not only how easily the US can slip into the notion that it can thumb its nose at international law and opinion, but also how quickly it can rebound from that unfortunate assumption. And for those of us who care about human rights, it has taught us one thing more: That even with the friendliest faces in positions of power, our job is never done.
William F. Schulz is the president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and previously served from 1994-2006 as executive director of Amnesty International USA. He is the author of several books, including “Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights.”