- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002

With friends like these, who needs enemies? It is disappointing but true that America's European allies all too often bring this sentiment to mind. The first nine months of the Bush administration saw a barrage of silly and immature complaints from the Europeans about George W. Bush. He was called everything from a murderer (because of the U.S. death penalty) to an enemy of the global environment (for not endorsing the same Kyoto treaty that the EU countries themselves had failed to ratify) to a complete idiot who needed tutelage on the most basic aspects of international relations.

In fact, it took an event as grave and traumatic as September 11 to stop all the whining. Briefly, people across Europe came to their senses and expressed their solidarity with a United States under attack. These feelings seemed sincere. Many offered help, sympathy and what contributions they could to Americans overseas. European leaders like Britain's Tony Blair, France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder traveled to Washington to show their support.

However, just as the spirit of bipartisanship fell victim to the first Washington scandal to arise here, the Enron collapse and this just four months after the worst terrorist attacks ever experienced by this nation so the feeling of brotherhood extending across the Atlantic Ocean has quickly evaporated. Perhaps this is simply human nature asserting itself, both domestically and abroad. Still, one would have hoped that, faced with a tragedy of this magnitude, human nature might have taken a somewhat longer break from showing its less endearing side.

The American outrage du jour for Europeans is the treatment of the al Qaeda and Taliban fighters detained at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. From Sweden to the Netherlands to Britain to Amnesty International to the International Red Cross, the critics are growing louder. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher yesterday chimed in with the demand that the prisoners be given humane treatment and respect for their persons and their honor, and receive other guarantees generally accorded prisoners of war according to the Geneva Convention. In Britain, Foreign Minister Jack Straw demanded to know why the United States felt it necessary to treat the men in a manner that is "inhuman and degrading." The British government's fact-finding mission, however, uncovered "no signs of mistreatment" of three British nationals, as Mr. Blair hastened to state publicly.

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shot back at the critics. "The allegations that have been made by many from a comfortable distance that the men and women in the U.S. armed forces are somehow not properly treating the detainees under their charge is plain false," he said. "No detainee has been harmed or mistreated in any way."

Ironically, pictures provided by the U.S. government are causing the uproar. Images of the prisoners shackled, hooded, wearing ear muffs and surgical masks, kneeling in the open air in orange jumpsuits immediately after their arrival, have caused huge consternation abroad. It certainly does not look like much fun, but it is hard to see how this could qualify as torture, a charge which has been plastered across front pages of tabloids abroad.

But these are far from the last pictures we can expect. As it happens, Cuba's Fidel Castro, for whom the U.S. presence at Guantanamo Bay has been a source of great irritation for decades, is in an expansive mood. Thus Mr. Castro has given the international press unprecedented access to the area adjoining Guantanamo, where cameras are now set up to watch the Americans and their prisoners across the barbed wire fence. With a straight face, CNN reporter Lucia Newman even stated that Mr. Castro was making a personal contribution to the war on terrorism, which he is as eager to join as anybody. Mr. Castro told her so himself.

All of this noise is almost enough to make someone who has felt queasy about the military tribunals and the detainees in Guantanamo Bay change her mind. Let us not forget that the 158 men held there and the 275 held by the U.S. forces in Afghanistan are terrorists for whom killing as many Americans as possible is considered an honorable goal. If they have suffered the indignity of having their heads shaved, been made to wear leg irons, and get rained on a bit, it won't be worth losing sleep over.

However, the Bush administration cannot hold these people indefinitely without charging them or clarifying their legal status. As a country of laws, we have to demand as much of our government. In the end, returning the detainees to their countries of origin may be the worst punishment we can think of China, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. From the perspective of jail cells there, Guantanamo Bay may come to seem like a holiday paradise.


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