- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

The reaction abroad to the handling of prisoners from Afghanistan at the U.S. naval base in Cuba has been loud and furious something like what you'd get if you set off a firecracker in a chicken coop. All it took was one photograph of shackled and blindfolded detainees kneeling on the ground outside their cells to produce howls from people who think the United States is guilty of the worst atrocity since Mariah Carey started making movies.

"A disgrace," blared the British newspaper the Mirror, which announced, "These prisoners are trapped in open cages, manacled hand and foot, brutalized, tortured and humiliated." Amnesty International said the U.S. had resorted to "sensory deprivation," "unnecessary restraint," and other methods commonly "used around the world to elicit confessions."

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which normally avoids public criticism of governments, accused Washington of violating the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. A British bishop declared, "The argument that the Taliban [are] appalling, therefore it doesn't matter how we treat them, is degrading to our own claim to be upholding the standards of civilization."

But of course no one in the U.S. government or military has been saying anything of the kind. What officials have been saying is that the prisoners are being treated decently, in general conformity to the standards of the Geneva Convention. "I haven't found a single scrap of any kind of information that suggests that anyone has been treated anything other than humanely," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Where are the torture and brutalization charged by the British tabloids? It is not exactly news to find that prisoners are "trapped" in "cages." Prisoners generally are which is why they're called prisoners. Sometimes criminals in custody are also manacled hand and foot to keep them from making trouble. An enterprising newspaper might even find convicts in British penitentiaries who are subject to similar methods of incapacitation.

Anyone charged with responsibility for hundreds of exceptionally dangerous prisoners would want to take care to prevent them from attacking their captors or escaping. The methods used on the prisoners in the photo fall well within the bounds of civilized treatment.

Don't take my word for it. A spokesman for Human Rights Watch, one of the organizations protesting the conditions in Guantanamo, expresses no objection to the devices used to control the inmates during transport. Its concern is the type of cells in which the inmates will be held. Why? Because, with their chain-link sides, "they offer scant shelter from wind and rain."

But putting someone in open-air housing on a tropical Caribbean island during January somehow fails to bring to mind the Spanish Inquisition. (Sunday's forecast for Havana: partly cloudy, with a high of 86 degrees and a low of 66.) Americans have been known to pay handsome sums to undergo such agony. Even Human Rights Watch notes that these are merely temporary quarters, and that the Defense Department is already building permanent facilities with those all-important walls as well as roofs.

Likewise, the alleged "sensory deprivation" and "unnecessary restraint" that outraged Amnesty International were of no particular concern to the International Committee of the Red Cross. It doesn't claim these violated the Geneva Convention. The violation, in its view, was I'm not making this up the photo itself, which supposedly flouted the rule against making a public spectacle of captives.

There you have it: The United States opens a window on its alleged inhumanity, and it gets blamed for both the alleged inhumanity and for its openness.

But the human-rights watchdogs don't even agree on that. Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says: "I wouldn't say it's a violation. You can't parade prisoners before jeering crowds, or release humiliating photos, or make them objects of scorn." Demeaning the prisoners was obviously not the purpose in this instance.

It's not clear by any means that the U.S. has any obligation to follow every jot and tittle of the Geneva Convention, which was not written to uphold the rights of people who fly civilian airliners into office buildings. To qualify for the protections of that treaty, combatants have to follow basic rules of war, like wearing uniforms, carrying arms openly, and respecting the rules of war. Al Qaeda's members obviously don't qualify, and even Taliban soldiers may not.

Unlawful combatants have few protections under international law. The U.S., however, has said it will apply most of the Geneva protections to the Guantanamo inmates anyway. Meanwhile, it has opened the camp to inspection by the International Committee of the Red Cross, even though the organization seems to have already made up its mind.

Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are not known for their sense of humor. But if you told them the treatment they're getting from their hated wartime enemy is brutal and cruel, even they might have to laugh.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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