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We Will Not Tolerate the Abuse of War Prisoners: Guantanamo Could Be Where America and Europe Part Company
17 January 2002
One value that's meant to bind Anglos and Americans is their attitude to justice. The common law runs through England and America, and we believe the principles underlying it are shared. That's partly what the world war against terrorism is supposed to be about. Yet some of these values turn out not to be shared at all. It's a salutary, ominous phenomenon. Just as significant as America's treatment of Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners held at its Guantanamo base in Cuba is the gulf this is opening up between two cultures that imagine they have everything important in common.
For Washington, Camp X-Ray is plainly an extension of the war. The captives are not allowed to be called prisoners of war, but are held under rules of war defined by the side that's continuing to fight and maybe win it. They're kept off US territory, and outside the reach of the Geneva Conventions, so they can be treated the way American generals and politicians rather than American lawyers want to treat them: which is to say, without fundamental rights or international protection.
Until the Red Cross get into the camp, it's not possible to be sure what goes on there. And shackling potentially suicidal killers to their plane seats doesn't seem an outrageous form of maltreatment in the circumstances. But the US authorities haven't denied many details: the shaving of the beards, the open-air cages, the selective hooding, the less than persuasive evidence that the captives are being held as individuals with specific charges against them. When the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said he had "not the slightest interest" in the camp's conditions, he signaled simultaneously contempt for the prisoners and bilious disdain for any critics who might dare to speak.
There have been some of these in the US. A few sharp voices are heard. To accompany yesterday's publication of its annual report on human rights in 66 countries, Human Rights Watch, an essentially American research group, issued a blistering statement against hypocrisy. "Terrorists believe that anything goes in the name of their cause," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director. "The fight against terror must not buy into that logic. Human rights principles must not be compromised in the name of any cause." Mr Roth likened the military tribunals President Bush has announced to those of a tin-pot tyrant wanting to get rid of his political enemies - which in another life Washington would be the first to condemn.
But HRW is not the mainstream. The mainstream all flows in one acquiescent direction. Searching the New York Times and Washington Post websites, I can find neither an editorial nor a column that criticized the regime Rumsfeld approves for Camp X-ray The rights and wrongs are barely discussed. Here's a considerable issue of principle, staked out by a president in seeming defiance of international conventions, which the big US papers would normally be full of. Instead, it succumbs to the fog of loyalty that has choked the oxygen out of controversy in the citadels of the US media ever since September 11.
The national crisis sets severe limits to discussion even now. There was a sense of generalized vengeance in what Rumsfeld had to say. Having failed to catch Osama bin Laden, the US is evidently adopting the alternative of netting any number of Taliban and al-Qaida and sticking them with collective responsibility for the monstrous mass murder at the Pentagon and World Trade Center. The issue is not whether this is true, but in what forum, what context and what conditions the truth will be determined. The establishment mind is content to let such questions pass. The mood of America is to switch off tough calls on justice.
The mood of Britain was once the same. Parliamentary Britain, at least. David Blunkett wouldn't otherwise have been able to legislate against habeas corpus. Anti-terrorism laws bring out compliant panic in politicians here as well as there. But British responses to the Rumsfeld camp have been different. Not only the Guardian finds the overriding of the Geneva Convention deplorable, but the rightwing press is also weighing in. The Mail ran a column of regretful outrage by Stephen Glover, a rock-ribbed pro-American. Yesterday's Telegraph laid into Washington for endangering the distinction "between civilized society and the apocalyptic savagery of those who would destroy it".
Ministers too are worried. They have no easy answers in defense of the unilateralist interpretation of international law that Washington seems bent on imposing by force majeure. Challenged about it on the BBC, Jack Straw was reduced to the gibbering squeaks of a man who had no stomach for the task. Whatever lousy laws they're prepared to pass themselves, Labour politicians are horrified by what seems to be happening in Guantanamo. Interrogated by MPs, Mr Blair gave voice to this feeling yesterday, with repeated assurances that "of course" all prisoners must be treated "properly and humanely". Rightly cautioning us to wait until the Red Cross reported, he sounded like a man who could not believe the Americans would be doing anything unpleasant. But also one who would have a predisposition to deny it, even if they were.
The trouble is, he is probably wrong. Rumsfeld's statements, and the indifference of public opinion, announce a nation that's likely to remain impatient with the trifling details of international law for a long time. So here comes another set of issues that put the Anglo-American relationship under special strain. It could be the most taxing of all the challenges to Blair's mantra about not having to make any choice between Europe and America: which really means any severance from Washington's side.
For some time the hardest break-point looked like being Iraq. It still may be. The justifiable desire to see the back of Saddam Hussein remains very strong in Washington, but has for the moment been overtaken by the even more justifiable perception that this carries many, perhaps futile, hazards. However, even if it re-emerged as an American priority, it no longer looks certain to tear apart the European wing of the coalition. There's a decent chance that, if the UN set out once again to get weapons inspectors into Baghdad, and was once again rebuffed, few EU members would push heavy opposition to what America wanted.
The likely outgrowths from Guantanamo are more toxic. Secret hearings in military tribunals, of EU citizens who might face execution, will offend every European instinct. If that's what happens, even short of the execution factor, America can expect its own long drawn-out vengeance on al-Qaida to be matched by a European public opinion increasingly roused against it. For, contrary to the myth of Anglo-America's unique respect for individual liberties, the continental ethic of human rights is even stronger. In response to September, not one EU country passed such draconian laws as Britain. If Mr Blair defends the US as humane and proper, come what may, he finally risks losing a lot of more important friends.