Sunday, December 21, 2008

My nephew's at Guantanamo-- what I wish I could tell him

My nephew and I have lived in the same house for probably half his life. As a teen he was into heavy metal, sci fi, paintball, martial arts and hanging with his buddies. He also had a wicked tender heart-- still does, I imagine-- particularly for his cousins and stray neighborhood kids and animals.

Two and a half years ago he joined the Navy. Like many young men, he saw the service as an opportunity to have a future and as he'd like to be in some kind of law enforcement when he leaves the service, he became part of the Naval Security Force. Five months ago, he was transfered to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

I had a hope, which I didn't dare examine too closely, that because he was in the Navy, in a bay, that he'd be spending much of his time on board a ship, away from the detention camps.

Well, it turns out that the Navy runs security for the camps now-- it used to be the Marines, but not any longer.

My nephew called home the other day and talked to his mom. Of course, for security reasons, there is much he can't say. What he did tell her, however, was about the excrement thrown at him and his fellow security force members by the detention camp prisoners as they walked between the rows of cells.

Here's what I wish I had a way to tell my nephew-- not only tell him, but have him hear.

You are a good person and you don't deserve to have excrement thrown at you. However, it will be nearly impossible for any prisoner at Guantanamo to see you as anything other than a representative of a government that has incarcerated him for seven years without access to the due process of law. No matter what else you may be, you are their jailer.

The United States has just come through nearly eight years of incredible lawlessness. You were barely into your teens when Bush was elected, but I wish you had had a chance to get to know this country before the war. Perfect it definitely was not. Yet even I, cynic that I am, couldn't have guessed how much damage could be done to civil rights.

The Senate Armed Services Committee released a bipartisan report this week about how torture, abuse and death became commonplace in the prisons where "enemy combatants" were held.

Do you know that many of those held prisoner in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere were incarcerated on the word of informants who were rewarded with cash? For many there was little evidence to begin with, and torture produced no worthwhile information. At Guantanamo, of the peak population of 775 at Guantanamo Bay, only 250 prisoners were still there as of November 20; more than two-thirds have been released.

When torture began in those prisons, high government officials including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales used two main strategies to justify it.

First, they changed the definition of torture so that even techniques that could lead to the death of the person being interrogated were not out of bounds.

Second, they announced that the Geneva Convention did not apply to those who were captured in the "war on terror." You probably learned in basic training that the Geneva Convention protocols would protect you if you were ever captured in war. Many of us with family members in the armed forces feared that other countries would change their definition, too.

You will be happy to know-- if you don't already-- that every branch of the armed forces protested that the torture of prisoners violated the law. According to a New York Times editorial commenting on the Senate Armed Services Committee report, Rumsfeld rescinded some of the worst practices at Guantanamo "only after the Navy’s chief lawyer threatened to formally protest the illegal treatment of prisoners." But "by then, at least one prisoner, Mohammed al-Qahtani, had been threatened with military dogs, deprived of sleep for weeks, stripped naked and made to wear a leash and perform dog tricks. This year, a military tribunal at Guant├ínamo dismissed the charges against Mr. Qahtani."

The bottom line, of course, is that the armed forces must obey the Commander-in-Chief, and you must obey your commanding officers. But how I wish you weren't there, at Guantanamo, in an environment drenched in the moral corruption of torture. Affairs may have improved, but the past cannot be undone. When the a prisoner at Guantanamo looks at you, he sees all seven years of his incarceration, every humiliation he and his fellow prisoners have suffered, every pain, every snarling military dog, every sleepless night. He does not see the nephew with a tender heart that I know and love so well.

Please just keep remembering who you are, and come home soon.

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