Sunday, October 1, 2006

“This is not just a bad bill,” said Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This is truly a dangerous bill.” And it’s not just a dangerous bill. It’s also “unconstitutional” and “unconscionable” and represents the loss of the nation’s “moral compass”.

Wow. That’s quite a lot for a humble bill on military trials for terrorist (OK, “alleged terrorist”) detainees. But Vermont’s leftie colossus wasn’t done yet in his excoriation of the Bush administration. “Even they cannot dismiss the practices at Guantanamo as the actions of a few bad people,” he continued. “Before they just did it quietly, and against the law, on their own say-so, but now they are obtaining license to engage in additional harsh techniques that the rest of the world will see as abusive, as cruel, as degrading and even as torture.”

Hmm. I should say a word about “the practices at Guantanamo.” As it happens, I’ve just got back from Gitmo. (That glitch on my Green Card was finally straightened out.) I’ve visited several prisons in several countries over the years and never seen anything like this one. Granted, most of what I know about enemy detainee camps comes from what Rear Adm. Harry Harris, who runs Guantanamo, calls “bad movies and worse TV shows,” and from a distance very little seems to have changed: The basic look — barbed wire and watch towers — would be recognizable to any World War II POWs. But, close up, pretty much everything else has been flushed down the toilet of history. Indeed, even the toilet has been flushed down the toilet of history: In the interests of cultural sensitivity, Gitmo cells were fitted with “Asian-style toilets,” because “that’s what the detainees prefer.” Given that much of the matter that should be going down there ends up flung over the guards, it seems this sensitivity over choice of bathroom fixtures is not always appreciated.

When visitors swing by like yours truly, the camp likes to serve them the same meal the prisoners get. This being Ramadan, Adm. Harris was particularly proud of the fresh-baked traditional pastries his team had made for the holy month. And he was right: the baklava was delicious. “Baklava” is said by some linguists to come from the Arabic for “nuts” — and, indeed, in that sense this entire war can sometimes seem like one giant baklava.

There was a film out earlier this year called “The Road To Guantanamo,” and the poster showed the usual emaciated prisoner hung by shackles against a dungeon wall. No doubt the actor in question did the full Robert De Niro and lost 40 pounds to get himself looking that cadaverous.

If they have anything like that going on at the real Gitmo, they must be doing it behind the confectioner’s sugar at the back of the pastry chef’s cupboard. If you’re hoping to hear about the old wooden chair under a bare light bulb swinging on its cord, here’s the reality: The detainees are interrogated on either a La-Z-Boy Recliner or a luxuriously upholstered sofa — blue plush with gold piping.

As for being emaciated, it’s the only death camp in history where the soi-disant torture victims put on weight. In contrast to the undernourished thesp in the movie version, the average gain at Gitmo is 18 pounds. The Afghan detainees were the chunkiest Afghans I’ve ever seen. If they ever make it home, their old comrades — the lean wiry warriors of the Hindu Kush — will wonder why a party of Florida retirees has suddenly shown up. These Pushtuns are pushing a ton.

And, if you do start losing weight suddenly, don’t worry. One of the camp’s medical staff explained they offer free colon-cancer testing for jihadis over 50. If President Hillary decides to have another crack at socialized medicine in 2009, there are worse slogans than “Every American should have the right to the same health care plan as a Sudanese terrorist who put his arm out stabbing a prison guard.”

Perhaps this is what Mr. Leahy means by “abusive” “cruel” “degrading” “torture.” If you’re used to the Afghan health system, no doubt it’s profoundly humiliating to be offered free colonoscopies every time you bend down to use the prayer mat. Nevertheless, it surely requires a perverse genius to have made the first terrorist detention camp to offer home-made Ramadan pastries a byword for horror and brutality. If I had to summon up Gitmo in a single image, it would be the brand-new Korans in each unoccupied cell. To reassure incoming inmates that the filthy infidels haven’t touched the sacred book with their unclean hands, the Korans are hung from the walls in pristine surgical masks. It’s one thing for Muslims to regard infidels as unclean, but it’s hard to see why it’s in the United States government’s interests to string along with it and thereby validate their bigotry.

When I put this point to Adm. Harris, he replied, “That’s an interesting question,” and said the decision had been made long before he arrived. He explained they had a good working system whereby whenever it became necessary to handle a Koran — because a weapon or illicit communication had been concealed in it — a Muslim translator would be called to the cell to perform the task. But I wasn’t thinking of it in operational so much as psychological terms: What does that degree of abasement before their prejudices tell them about us?

Mulling it over since I got back, I would go further: it seems to me that one sign this war is over is when Muslims are grown-up enough not to go to full-blown baklava nuts over other folks touching their Korans.

Of course, for the likes of Mr. Leahy, not only is the war far from over, it hasn’t even begun. Almost every argument in this area isn’t “about” the war so much as whether there even is a war. As The Washington Post reported, “The Senate joined the House in embracing President Bush’s view that the battle against terrorism justifies the imposition of extraordinary limits on defendants’ traditional rights in the courtroom.”

Well, they’re only “extraordinary” if you regard these men as traditional “defendants.” If you regard them as traditional wartime detainees — rather than O.J.s in turbans — the only “extraordinary” aspect of this is the kid gloves with which not just their Korans but the jihadists themselves are handled. This is the only war in American history in which enemy detainees have been freed before the end of hostilities. Of those released, at least 22 are known to have returned to the battlefield in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

The ones who remain are dangerous men, no matter how “sensitive” you are. They unscrewed the foot pads from those Asian-style toilets and used them as bludgeons to attack the guards. After listening to Pat Leahy’s contribution to the debate, I wonder if the Gitmo medical facility’s lavish team of mental health experts might not be more usefully deployed to the U.S. Senate.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

Mark Steyn, 2005

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