In Guantánamo


If there’s a civic hub on the naval base that the United States has occupied for 104 years on two spits of dry scrub land here on Cuba’s southeastern heel, it’s the section locally known as Downtown on the windward side of the bay. Downtown consists of “Cuba’s only McDonald’s,” as the franchise is often described, and a smallish mall with a supermarket, pizzeria, ATM, and video shop that displays a regularly updated selection of T-shirts poking ironic fun at “Gitmo,” as the base is known in navy talk. “The Least Worst Place,” proclaims the legend on the latest, repeating a solecism that stumbled off the tongue of Donald Rumsfeld last December. The defense secretary, trying to echo Churchill on democracy, had been explaining how Guantánamo got chosen as the warehouse for former Taliban fighters and supposed al-Qaeda terrorists picked up in Afghanistan and other precincts of the “Global War on Terrorism.”

Irony attaches to any description of the life on this isolated base but never to the “war” or the mission. Nor is it evoked by a familiar symbol on a flagstaff on the approach to Downtown: the black banner memorializing the POWs and MIAs lost in Vietnam more than three decades ago, especially those who might have been held in perpetual captivity after our own government perfidiously affirmed, according to truly diehard adherents of this faith, that all captives had been returned. Commonplace as it still is on military bases and across America, the black banner provides a small jolt in the least worst place, a reminder that the United States once championed the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. At the war’s end there were 50,000 prisoners of war, Vietcong guerrillas as well as regular North Vietnamese troops, in South Vietnamese camps visited regularly by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which Hanoi (to use a verb recently favored by George W. Bush) stiffed.

At the United States Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, by contrast, there is not a single certified prisoner of war among the 598 Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees. The procedures laid down by the convention have been overridden by fiat of the President, who determined at the start of the year that they didn’t apply in this case, that none of the detainees needed to be treated as prisoners of war under the terms of the convention, and, therefore, that there was no need to determine their status individually before the tribunals it prescribes, which are also prescribed by US military regulations. Otherwise, on February 7 the President decreed that Taliban captives would be treated humanely “in accordance with the Geneva convention.”

He had the grace not to say that it was better than they and their al-Qaeda brethren deserved and that we are prepared to hold the lot of them at Guantánamo until the distant day, if it ever comes, when Islamic terrorist networks have been universally uprooted; but that, basically, appears to be the administration’s position.…

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