A night in Guantánamo

By JEFF INGLIS  |  June 18, 2008

Maine’s DC delegation is split on the issue: Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democratic representative Mike Michaud voted for the Military Commissions Act of 2006. [Please see clarification, below.] It recreated a kangaroo-court show-trial system for “trying” detainees in front of military judges (after a nearly identical arrangement created by the Pentagon was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2006), and granted the US government the power to indefinitely imprison anyone — even US citizens — without charging them with a crime, and without ever bringing them before an independent civilian judge. Democratic representative Tom Allen opposed it; Republican senator Olympia Snowe didn’t vote, but later voted to overturn some of its harsher provisions.

And then there was that passerby who spit into my cell. I wondered if his attitude, amplified by the isolation of being stationed at a remote military base, and inflated by being allowed to carry large automatic weapons, might turn him into a rage-filled guard who just might do some of the things prisoners have described.

I wanted to judge him, to accuse him of insensitivity, of sympathizing with those who abuse and torture inmates. But I know as little about that man as we Americans do about the people held at Guantánamo Bay. I don’t know his name, and can tell you only the very basic outline of what he did. Without talking to him, without finding out why he did it, or where inside him that feeling came from, I cannot honestly “convict” him of anything more serious than common rudeness.

He walks free, though, so I’m less worried about him. The men in Guantánamo do not. Whatever they may be suspected of, why they were arrested, has never been made public, nor have the results of any subsequent investigations. Little wonder, then, that they have not been convicted of anything either. Justice has been slow in coming, and for some, may never arrive — at least four of them have committed suicide since the camp opened, and at least 40 of them have attempted it, often repeatedly.

Five others, among the most high-profile ones, appear to be seeking death another way. The morning I left the cell, they went in front of a military judge, in a proceeding that was widely criticized by lawyers and other observers for its departure from common legal standards (such as preventing co-defendants from talking to each other). After they were told what charges were being laid against them for their alleged involvement in the attacks of September 11, 2001, some of them said they wanted to be “martyred,” apparently asking for the death penalty. But like their fellow inmates, they wait.

I did, too. As people walked by throughout the night, some looked in, a few asked me what I was doing; others didn’t seem to notice the cell was even there, much less occupied. It was impossible to know what they thought.

I thought of the young men, some as young as 14, kidnapped from the streets of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, and sold to US troops as alleged terrorists for thousands of dollars in reward money, who now sit, as I did, in small cells awaiting the next dawn. And when I became cold, tired, and cramped, I reminded myself that they are enduring worse and suffering more. Their fortitude was a thin, cold comfort, but it gave me strength.

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