Friday, February 24, 2006

Arrogance On 2 Sides Clouds Guantanamo

By Richard Bernstein
International Herald Tribune
February 24, 2006

BERLIN--When someone of the moral stature of Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that your behavior has become unconscionable and that it resembles that of South Africa's old apartheid regime, then you know you've lost the battle for public opinion.

And Tutu, the Nobel Peace Laureate from South Africa, is only one in a rapidly building chorus of voices being heard in Europe and elsewhere about the American policy of indefinite detention of "enemy combatants" in Guantánamo, Cuba.

It doesn't take long before a kind of conventional wisdom, shared by a sort of critical mass of decent opinion, gains the kind of force that no countervailing argument can shake, and this seems to be what is occurring regarding Guantánamo and other war- on-terrorism actions of the United States these days.

Just before Tutu's BBC interview there was the release of the report by five specialists from the UN Human Rights Commission concluding that Guantánamo represented continuing human rights violations and needed to be shut down.

That came on the heels of the report by the Council of Europe a few weeks ago citing the United States for the sorts of atrocities more associated with banana republics than the greatest democracy in human history.

The Bush administration still sends out its emissaries to argue its case (Karen Hughes, who has overall responsibility for the hearts and minds struggle, was in Berlin this week), but it is losing the argument.

Indeed, just how badly it has lost the argument was clear in Berlin recently when one of the biggest popular successes at the Berlin Film Festival was a movie called "The Road to Guantánamo," which doesn't so much provide a direct answer to the Bush administration's case as subject it to merciless ridicule.

Created by the British director Michael Winterbottom, it seems destined to add considerable weight to the emerging conventional wisdom, that Guantánamo is the rough American equivalent of the Gulag Archipelago and equally unjustified.

I stress Winterbottom's movie because it illustrates the moral concern behind much of the criticism of Guantánamo and the other dubious elements in the war on terror. But it also illustrates the weakness of that criticism, especially its willingness to place the worst possible interpretation on American behavior, even while failing to take account of the very real threat of terrorism, or to offer alternatives to the measures being taken.

Indeed, watching the movie in Berlin a week ago, I found myself in a kind of plague-on-both-your-houses mood, angry at the Bush administration for so badly tarnishing the reputation of the United States and at Winterbottom and his many reverential acolytes in Berlin for making, not a real argument, but a skillful, emotionally wrenching, indeed demagogic piece of propaganda.

First the Bush administration. The plain fact would seem to be that much of the conventional wisdom about Guantánamo is due to its arrogance, its lack of regard for decent opinion, and the generally maladroit way in which it has made its case.

I happen to have a bit of experience with this, having once contacted the Pentagon press office for information about a German-born Turkish citizen named Murat Kurnaz who has been held in Guantánamo for four years despite what would appear to be no evidence, classified or unclassified, of any connection with terrorism or Al Qaeda or Islamic radicalism. I called the Pentagon to ask about Kurnaz, and the unhelpful, uninformative, vaguely hostile boilerplate I got in response reminded me of the years I spent in China in the early 1980s, asking the official government spokesman about human rights violations there.

The shroud of secrecy, the evasiveness, the strenuous effort of the Bush administration to block any kind of civil legal process from applying to the Guantánamo inmates and to appeal every judicial decision on the matter that has gone against it, all create an impression of obfuscating bureaucratic self-protection worthy of Franz Kafka.

But then there are Winterbottom and his movie, which promises to be a popular culture watershed in the debate over the proper way to wage the war on terror.

The main problem is not that Winterbottom has made essentially a work of the imagination masquerading as a documentary. He uses actors and sets to re-enact the compelling story of the so-called Tipton Three, Muslim men from the British West Midlands who got picked up in Afghanistan during the post-Sept. 11 invasion of that country and spent two pretty miserable years in Guantánamo before they were released.

The main problem isn't even that the story the men tell can't be confirmed, or that they really don't have a very good explanation of why they went to northern Afghanistan in the first place. And there is very little problem with Winterbottom's portrayal of the very harsh treatment they received, both before and during their incarceration at Guantánamo. The presentation here is entirely consistent with other reports that have emanated from the prison camp, and the Tipton Three's story is mostly believable.

What is mainly objectionable in "The Road to Guantánamo" is its sense of moral superiority, the absolute certainty with which it makes its case, even while failing to address the real nature of the terrorist threat, its very special, very murderous, very fanatical and morally very unhinged nature. Winterbottom's portrayal of American interrogators facing the Tipton Three is a caricature, and so is his portrayal of the only suspects we see in the film, the gentle, likeable, mistreated trio. No Mohamed Attas among them.

Winterbottom in this sense represents a persistent European trait, which is to benefit from American protection even while keeping its hands spotlessly clean, even while failing to recognize that a position of moral aloofness can be maintained only if somebody else does the dirty work.

I wish, in this sense, that the Bush administration were more responsive to its critics and could find a less secretive, more morally persuasive way of making its case. In fact, I wish, with Winterbottom, that the recourse to Guantánamo had never taken place, though exactly what I would have done, with the Taliban and Al Qaeda members picked up in Afghanistan I cannot say.

At the same time, even as they watch Winterbottom's ridiculing and shocking critique of American behavior, it would be good if Europeans kept in mind a couple of facts: that not every "enemy combatant" is one of the Tipton Three and that there is a deadly and proven danger out there that might actually require extraordinary measures to combat.

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