The Inquisition Strikes Back
"And therefore never send
for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
--John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation
Review by Jules Siegel
Guantánamo: What the World Should Know
By Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray
Chelsea Green Publishing Company
We have by now all seen much of this material before, but reading
it all in one piece, told by human voices in this book-length
interview, is not easy to take. "Guantánamo: What
the World Should Know" becomes a heart-stopper once you cross
the line and realize that you could be any of these victims.
Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights,
is co-counsel in Rasul v. Bush, the historic case of Guantánamo
detainees now before the U.S. Supreme Court. His interviewer,
Ellen Ray, is President of the Institute for Media Analysis, and
a widely published author and editor on U.S. intelligence and
It's hard to say which is more disgusting, the descriptions of
the torture or the bone-chilling analyses of how the president
of the United States gave himself the powers of an absolute military
dictator. Under Military Order No. 1, which the president issued
without congressional authority on November 13, 2001, George W.
Bush has ordered people captured or detained from all over the
world, flown to Guantánamo and tortured in a lawless zone
where, the White House asserts, prisoners have no rights of any
kind at all and can be kept forever at his pleasure. Despite the
at-best marginal intervention of the American courts so far, there
is no civilian judicial review, no due process of any kind.
While any military force will routinely violate the civil rights
of anyone who gets in its way, Ratner's descriptions of how victims
wound up in Guantánamo reveal wanton cruelty and callousness
that will nauseate any sane human being.
Ratner writes: "A lot of the people picked up by warlords
of the Northern Alliance were kept in metal shipping containers,
so tightly packed that they had to ball themselves up, and the
heat was unbearable. According to some detainees who were held
in the containers and eventually released from Guantánamo,
only a small number, thirty to fifty people in a container filled
with three to four hundred people survived. And some of those
released said that the Americans were in on this, that the Americans
were shining lights on the containers. The people inside were
suffocating, so the Northern Alliance soldiers shot holes into
the containers, killing some of the prisoners inside."
Some prisoners were captured in battle; many others were picked
up in random sweeps for no reason at all except being in the wrong
place at the wrong time. As usual in these kinds of operations,
some were turned in as a result of petty revenge or as an excuse
to steal their property. When asked in court to explain the criteria
for detention, the government had no answer. There were no criteria,
it appears. "The government even made the ridiculous argument
before the Supreme Court that the prisoners get to tell their
side of the story, by being interrogated," Ratner reports.
Ratner notes that 134 of the 147 prisoners later released from
Guantánamo were guilty of absolutely nothing. Only thirteen
were sent on to jail. He believes it is possible that a substantial
majority of the Guantánamo prisoners had nothing to do
with any kind of terrorism. One prisoner released after a year
claimed he was somewhere between ninety and one hundred years
old, according to Ratner. Old, frail and incontinent, he wept
constantly, shackled to a walker.
So what did the authorities get from those who survived? We will
never know, but we can guess from at least one incident in this
book. Ratner reports that the Guantánamo interrogators
showed some of his clients videotapes supposedly depicting them
with Osama bin Laden. At first they denied being in the videos,
but they confessed after prolonged interrogation under harsh conditions.
Yet British intelligence proved to the American government that
the men were actually in the United Kingdom when the tapes were
If many of these people who died in custody or were tortured
had committed no crime, there is no doubt that they were all victims
of crime, whether guilty or not. Despite White House arguments
to the contrary, torture is a crime under international and United
Under United Nations Convention Against Torture, an international
treaty that almost every country in the world, including the United
States, has ratified, torture is an international crime. The United
States has made it a crime even if it occurs abroad.
"The Convention Against Torture also establishes what is
called universal jurisdiction for cases of torture," Ratner
explains. "So, for example, if an American citizen engaged
in torture anywhere in the world and was later found in France,
let's say, that person could be arrested in France and either
tried for torture there or extradited to the place of the torture
for trial. To the extent U.S. officials were or are involved in
torture in Guantánamo or elsewhere, they should be careful
about the countries in which they travel."
He continues, "In addition, torture committed by U.S. soldiers
or private contractors acting under U.S. authority is a violation
of federal law, punishable by the death penalty if the death of
a prisoner results from the torture. Even if one argues that al
Qaeda suspects are not governed by the Geneva Conventions, the
Convention Against Torture and other human rights treaties ratified
by the United States prohibit torture as well as other cruel,
inhuman, and degrading treatment.
"The convention is crystal clear: under no circumstances
can you torture people, whatever you call them, whether illegal
combatants, enemy combatants, murderers, killers. You cannot torture
anybody ever; it's an absolute prohibition."
While many well-meaning people on both left and right profess
to be shocked by the stories that continue to pour out of Guantánamo,
Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, they usually fail to understand
that these atrocities are well-rooted in American culture.
"None of what is known to have happened in Guantánamo
is alien to American prisoners," says Paul Wright, Editor,
Prison Legal News. "Sexual assault, long term sensory deprivation,
abuse, beatings, shootings, pepper spraying and the like are all
too familiar to American prisoners. Coupled with overcrowding,
this is the daily reality of the American prison experience."
Perhaps the only real difference is that the White House argues
more forcefully than usual that no court can forbid it to arbitrarily
detain and torture anyone it designates an unlawful enemy combatant,
a definition that it has applied not only to foreigners but also
to American citizens. We have seen how the drug exception to the
Constitution has nullified basic American rights such a freedom
from illegal search and seizure. But the war on drugs was merely
a test run. Some rights remained intact. Now comes the permananent
war against terrorism in which all human rights are annihilated.
Rasul v. Bush could be a legal turning point, but it remains
to be seen whether or not the White House will respect any inconvenient
court decision, no matter how high the bench. Michael Ratner and
Ellen Ray could be merely eloquent early witnesses to the inevitable
future. Thus ends democracy in the United States. The most hope
that one can express is a question mark. Thus ends democracy in
the United States?