May 25, 2005

The Gulag of Our Times

Christopher Hitchens has written with great force against the “giggling sadists” who have abused those unlucky enough to be captured and detained by the wrong US soldiers and guards in Iraq.

One of two things must necessarily be true. Either these goons were acting on someone's authority, in which case there is a layer of mid- to high-level people who think that they are not bound by the laws and codes and standing orders. Or they were acting on their own authority, in which case they are the equivalent of mutineers, deserters, or traitors in the field. This is why one asks wistfully if there is no provision in the procedures of military justice for them to be taken out and shot.
One reason he is able to write these kinds of sentences without being dismissed as a knee-jerker is because, well, he isn’t a knee-jerker. He doesn’t exaggerate, he doesn’t describe as torture things which aren’t torture, and he doesn’t wallow in moral equivalency.

Recently he wrote the following about the Koran-in-a-toilet story:

For whatever it's worth, I know and admire both John Barry and Michael Isikoff, and I can quite imagine that—based on what they had already learned about the gruesome and illegal goings-on at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib—they found it more than plausible that the toilet incident, or something like it, had actually occurred. A second allegation, that a whole pile of Qurans had been stepped upon at Guantanamo, is equally credible. But mere objectivity requires us to note that this is partly because every prisoner is given a Quran, and that thus there are a lot of them lying around, and that none of this “scandal” would ever have occurred if the prison authorities were not at least attempting to respect Islamic codes.
This is pitch-perfect. It’s exactly the sort of thing those of us who are repulsed by prisoner abuse, vastly-milder “Koran abuse,” extraordinary rendition, and all the rest of it need to make it all stop – or at least be properly condemned and punished wherever and whenever it is uncovered.

What we don’t need are hysterical heavy-breathers like Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, describing the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the gulag of our times as she did in the foreword to the group’s latest annual report.

I have read some of the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And I once (briefly) met a man who survived both a Nazi concentration camp and one of Stalin’s slave labor camps in Siberia. It would be a bit much to say I “know” the gulag, but I do have a bit of a clue about what went on there. It was no Guantanamo, as anyone who has ever bothered to study the subject well knows. For one thing, if Guantanamo were the new gulag, Irene Khan would be languishing in it herself right about now – and so would her family.

But she isn’t, she never will be, and she knows it. What she doesn’t know is the gulag.

I once said of Senator James (more outraged by the outrage) Inhofe of Oklahoma that “it takes a special kind of person, really it does, to think anger at torture is worse than torture.” All Irene Khan is doing here is encouraging the Inhofes of the world by crying “wolf” instead of properly crying foul. It is, as a certain Secretary of Defense would put it, not helpful.

Anyway, the gulag of our times is in North Korea.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 25, 2005 10:19 PM

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