Tuesday, July 31, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

You've got to find this headline more than a little misleading: Guantanamo cell is better than freedom, says inmate fighting against release.

Read the story. Here's how his lawyer describes it:

“He says his cell in Guantanamo is like a grave and that although it sounds crazy he would rather stay in those conditions than go back to Algeria. The fact is that he is really, really scared about what might happen to him in Algeria.”

Absent any other quotes from or about the prisoner, Ahmed Belbacha, that hardly justifies the headline. Even though the head may be, literally, not false, that doesn't make it honest writing. It's not quite the "Ha!" that many defenders of the administration take it for.

The article goes the opposite direction from the headline, in fact, which makes it all the more schizophrenic. It tells a very sympathetic story of how Belbacha ended up betrayed into U.S. custody and how he was abused by us, with no notion that there may be another side or more context to that story. Not even a "U.S. authorities were not available for comment." No evidence they even tried to contact them. Even in a generally conservative British newspaper, the official American point of view isn't worth a line of ink.

[correction: A passage originally cited here from a "Guardian" story turns out to have been in reference to a different prisoner]

At any rate, the U.S. finds itself in the custody of someone it wants to be rid of now. He was swept up at the end of a war, in which perhaps he sought to fight and certainly was in contact with the battlefield enemy of the Americans, in a country not his own. Yet the very fact of his initially having fled his homeland, then having dallied with Islamists, then having been in our custody probably marks him as a dead man walking in his homeland.

Our sense of the world as a terrain entirely divided into discreet entities called nation states, one of which is a natural home to every person, propels us to send him back to his. This is the easy and quick solution -- sanctioned by all the international rules of the game that we're constantly told America must strictly adhere to.

But it is Pilate's solution. It is cynical to pretend we don't know otherwise. At the end of World War II, the Western Allies found themselves in control of whole populations of peoples from Eastern Europe who had more or less taken the side of the fascists against the communists in a time and place that offered no third way. In some cases the larger war had uncorked old civil wars, and the players picked sides more or less at random.

As the Germans fell back, these peoples fell back with them -- entire ethnic enclaves pulled up roots rather than face the inevitable retribution, in a mass migration on a scale not seen in Europe since the 10th century. And when Hitler's Reich crumbled at last, they sat down in the mountain valleys of Bavaria and Austria and awaited their fate under the British and Americans who stumbled upon them: peasant wagons full of shivering children, men in tattered Wehrmacht uniforms who spoke not a word of German, 25,000 cossacks in garb Napoleon would have recognized.

The commingled masses made a hash of the whole notion of "nation states," But the British and American authorities, after some hesitation and anguish, decided they had no alternative but to "repatriate" them -- into the hands of Stalin's paranoid and murderous regime or its venal puppets, into the hands of the bitter ethnic rivals these peoples had battled against.

When the refugees discovered their fates, untold numbers committed suicide. Those who didn't were shot on arrival by the tens of thousands in their "homelands." Many of the rest were sent to die in miserable work camps. Those British and American military men and diplomats unlucky enough to have participated in this duty often were haunted by it for the rest of their lives.

What would you have done instead? Can you have supported the war to liberate Iraq, and at the same time send this man to his fate?