Blogs > HNN > Cathy Young: Guantanamo Is Not the Gulag

Jun 11, 2005 2:19 pm

Cathy Young: Guantanamo Is Not the Gulag

Cathy Young, from the International Herald Tribue (6-10-05)

No person of conscience, whatever his or her views on the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and U.S. foreign policy in general, should remain untroubled by reports of prisoner abuse by American forces. These reports, including one from the FBI, indicate a systemic problem. It is appalling that in a war conducted in America's name, detainees have been beaten, left naked and chained in cold cells, and in some cases killed. It is disturbing that suspects are held without legal recourse. It is sad, to say the least, that some war supporters have shrugged off these abuses.

Unfortunately, a recent Amnesty International broadside against U.S. detention of terror suspects goes so far in the other direction that it can only harm the effort to end prisoner abuse and hold the culprits accountable. Notoriously, the organization's annual report described the Guantánamo Bay detention center as "the gulag of our times."

The gulag was, of course, the Soviet system of forced labor camps (the word is a Russian abbreviation for "chief administration of camps"), which flourished in the Stalin era and was immortalized in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's three-volume history, "The Gulag Archipelago" (1973-75). Unlike the Nazi concentration camps, it was not a deliberately designed extermination machine. Nonetheless, in her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Gulag: A History," the journalist Anne Applebaum writes that after 1937, the Soviet camps "transformed themselves from indifferently managed prisons in which people died by accident into genuinely deadly camps where prisoners were deliberately worked to death, or actually murdered" in large numbers.

Scattered across the great expanse of Siberia, the Soviet camps were hellholes where emaciated people were sometimes forced to work outdoors in temperatures well below freezing point and workdays of up to 16 hours; where people died routinely of malnutrition, and those too weak to work had their rations docked for not fulfilling their work quota; where starved prisoners ate stray cats and picked food out of refuse heaps; where thousands were summarily shot for various infractions. Reliable statistics are difficult to come by, but at least 18 million people were imprisoned in the gulag from 1929 to 1953, and at least two million died there...

...What about the "American gulag"? It is important to remember that the United States is dealing with the unprecedented situation of de facto enemy combatants who belong not to the army of a hostile state but to a vast, murky terror network - a network that proved its deadliness on Sept. 11, 2001, and other occasions. This does not give America carte blanche for indefinite detention without charges, let alone torture of suspects, but it does pose serious issues of balancing civil rights and national security that other democracies, such as France, are grappling with as well. While the mistreatment of prisoners in U.S. detention facilities has been too common to be dismissed as bad acts by a few bad apples, it remains the exception, not the rule.

Prisoner abuse remains a real issue. But Amnesty's comparison, which the former Soviet political prisoner Vladimir Bukovsky characterizes as "stupid" and "an insult to the memory of millions who perished" in Soviet camps, does not help matters. Instead, it revives the tired specter of moral equivalency between flawed democracies and totalitarian dictatorships - a specter particularly obscene when real gulags still exist in places like North Korea. It also gives the Bush administration an "out" to deflect attention from its own policies to its critics' hyperbole.

The hyperbole is wrong - but that's cold comfort to those of us who believe America should hold itself to a higher standard than "we're better than the gulag."

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