The first thing they do is cover your eyes. They make you strip to make sure you’re not carrying anything. They replace your clothes with uniforms that are not clothes at all. They chain you by hand and foot. They drag you away and leave you on your own. They interrogate you. They say you are going to die if you won’t talk. They feed you, of course. You’re not much good to them if you starve to death.
It sounds like Camp X-Ray in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to which the US military is deporting men it captured in Afghanistan. It is also Lebanon in the 1980s. The Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim Party of God, kidnapped foreigners between 1982 and 1989 at the behest of their Iranian benefactors. I remember the drill–the blindfold, chains, solitude and loneliness. I was there for two months in 1987. It was a bad time, and it seemed unlikely to me then that I would one day see photographs of my countrymen treating Muslim prisoners much as I was treated.
I thought the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution prohibited “cruel and unusual punishments.” I’m looking at the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments that Americans regard as sacred, and read the words, “nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Full stop. It does not say that only American passport holders, legal residents of the United States and members of the Senate who take contributions from corporations that violate the law are exempt from government torments. It makes clear that no category of human being is excluded from America’s obligation to refrain from cruel and unusual punishments. The Eighth Amendment means suspects, it means enemies, it means criminals, it means prisoners of war, it means–and the term is as new to me and you as it undoubtedly is to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld–“illegal” combatants. Who is illegal and who is legal, by the way, has always been a determination for the courts of the United States and not for the Defense Department. As for international law, the Geneva Convention say “captured combatants or civilians” have certain rights–including to correspond with their families–without any distinction between “legal” and “illegal” combatants.
I wonder now whether some mullah in Teheran said, when a score of Americans and Europeans were illegally held against their will in Lebanon, “Obviously, anyone would be concerned if people were suggesting that treatment was not proper.” That is what Rumsfeld said on television the other day. Rumsfeld’s concern for the Muslims chained like Caliban on America’s Caribbean base seems to match what Teheran’s mullahs felt for us.
The mullahs, at least, knew that holding American, French, British and German captives in Lebanon during the 1980s was so shameful that they never admitted it. Rumsfeld seems proud. His is not some secret operation, like the CIA’s Phoenix Program of assassinations and torture in Vietnam. It’s out in the open. If Rumsfeld has not read the Constitution to which he has taken an oath, if he does not see the cruelty in the treatment of those men in Cuba, he could at least admit that tying men up, blocking their sight, cutting them off from their families and flying them around the world is unusual.