As the War on Terror nears its fifth anniversary, the casualties mountâ€”none greater perhaps than truth, justice, and decency. Stunned and deeply hurt by a vicious attack on September 11, 2001, America has responded to such with all the grace and good sense of the wounded Ahab in Moby Dick. Helmed by foolhardy and arrogant men, this nation pursues vengeance on the white whale of terrorism with single-minded fervor, seemingly unconcerned about the damage done to innocent others or to its own soul. Undeterred by the costs and unwilling to admit failure or even error, the Pequod that America has become presses tragically on. The whale must be vanquished. The terrorists must be eliminated.
Never mind that, in this pursuit that is less righteous cause than unseemly compulsion, the hunter draws closer to the quarryâ€”not so much in location as in demeanor and character. Disregard for human life and well-being is met with a like disregard. Wrong is met with wrong, violation with violation. However the actions and motivations of one side or the other may differâ€”and differ they doâ€”it nonetheless appears evident that America is increasingly becoming that which it fears and opposes. â€œWe have met the enemy, and he is us.â€?
Consider the case of Murat Kurnaz, a young man seized from a bus in Pakistan in October of 2001 while traveling with an Islamic missionary group and subsequently detained at the U.S. military prison at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba. He was among the first there, joined by hundreds of other â€œenemy combatantsâ€? that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld categorized in 2002 as â€œthe worst of the worstâ€? and being â€œamong the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.â€? Despite such brash claims, the evidence now suggests that a large number of those detained at GuantÃ¡namoâ€”often for years without charges or trialsâ€”have been little more than victims of circumstance, bad intelligence, unfounded allegations, and stubborn politics. Consider the case of Murat Kurnaz, as reported here by the Washington Post in March of 2005:
A military tribunal determined last fall that Murat Kurnaz, a German national seized in Pakistan in 2001, was a member of al Qaeda and an enemy combatant whom the government could detain indefinitely at the U.S. military prison at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba.
The three military officers on the panel, whose identities are kept secret, said in papers filed in federal court that they reached their conclusion based largely on classified evidence that was too sensitive to release to the public.
In fact, that evidence, recently declassified and obtained by The Washington Post, shows that U.S. military intelligence and German law enforcement authorities had largely concluded there was no information that linked Kurnaz to al Qaeda, any other terrorist organization or terrorist activities.
In recently declassified portions of a January ruling, a federal judge criticized the military panel for ignoring the exculpatory information that dominates Kurnazâ€™s file and for relying instead on a brief, unsupported memo filed shortly before Kurnazâ€™s hearing by an unidentified government official.
Kurnaz has been detained at GuantÃ¡namo Bay since at least January 2002.
â€œThe U.S. government has known for almost two years that he’s innocent of these charges,â€? said Baher Azmy, Kurnazâ€™s attorney. â€œThat begs a lot of questions about what the purpose of GuantÃ¡namo really is. He can’t be useful to them. He has no intelligence for them. Why in the world is he still there?â€? [full text]
Why, indeed? And why did it take another 17 months or so, until just this past week, before Mr. Kurnaz was finally released, after years of undeserved detainment and treatment? Here again, the Washington Post reports:
Lawyers for Murat Kurnaz, a German native released Thursday after spending more than four years locked up at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba, said he was mistreated to the end by U.S. military personnel, who kept him shackled and blindfolded until his flight home landed.
Bernhard Docke, an attorney representing Kurnaz, a 24-year-old Turkish citizen who was born and raised in Germany, said his client was kept in a â€œcageâ€? and under bright neon lights 24 hours a day during his captivity at GuantÃ¡namo. â€œThe Americans are incorrigible, they have not learned a thing,â€? Docke said at a news conference in Bremen, Kurnazâ€™s home town. â€œHe was returned home in chains, humiliated and dishonored to the very end.â€?
Defense Department officials said they agreed to free Kurnaz on the condition that Germany treat him humanely and that it ensure he would no longer pose a security threat. The U.S. government still considers Kurnaz an enemy combatant. [full text]
Many dozens of others like Kurnaz, arbitrarily imprisoned and subjected to cruel and inhuman interrogation and treatment (as documented by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), are at long last gaining their release from the hellish confines of GuantÃ¡namo. In short, mistakes were made, and they are seemingly being rectified. (For more details, see William Fisherâ€™s article, â€œGitmo Releases Suggest Numerous Mistakes.â€?) But such progress, however welcome, cannot undo the many wrongs. â€œJustice delayed is justice denied,â€? the 19th century British statesman William Gladstone once opined.
Victim of a brutal and unjust attack that wounds painfully still, America has lashed out with brutal and unjust acts of its own. Legal or not, such behavior is immoral. It does not become this nation. The moral high ground does not belong to those who are simply less wicked. To lay claim deservedly to such territory demands one eschew wickedness entirely. Tragically, America has failed in this regard and, in so doing, much like Ahab, has lost not just its way but its soul.