Gitmo's not bad, but this poetry is
'Poems From Guantánamo' is a challenge for even overwhelmingly sympathetic reviewers
MARK STEYN | September 3, 2007 |
The jacket of Poems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak shows a photograph by Paul J. Richards of Agence France-Presse: a close-up of the shackles that chain a man's ankles to the floor while he's being interrogated. But what rang a bell with me was the strip of carpet you can glimpse just above it. I visited Gitmo last fall -- for Ramadan, as it happens -- and, among other highlights, got to visit the interrogation room. The detainees are questioned while seated on a La-Z-Boy recliner or a sofa -- blue plush with gold piping. I found this a sufficiently novel form of torture upholstery to ask the guard if he'd mind snapping a picture of me in the jihadist La-Z-Boy. It's sitting in a file at the Pentagon somewhere. But no doubt in 20 years' time I'll be running for public office and my opponent's oppo-research team will use it for an attack ad claiming I was a top al-Qaeda operative at the turn of the century.
There's no point debating Guantánamo anymore. Pretty much everyone's made up his mind. Some of us think the Americans have done the best they could given the unconventional nature of the enemy in this war(no uniforms, no serial numbers, all volunteers from many lands, including Canada). A much larger number of people think it's "the American gulag." Alain Grignard, who visited the camp on behalf of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, objects to the black hole of the detainees' legal status but declares that "it is a model prison, where people are better treated than in Belgian prisons." Still, there aren't many takers for that position. If you think the detainees shouldn't be there, you generally incline, as Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International U.K., does on the back of this book, to the view that the prisoners are pretty much routinely tortured.
So I mention the La-Z-Boy recliner not to make a political argument so much as an artistic one. Presumably when Paul J. Richards snapped his pic for Agence France-Presse, either the La-Z-Boy or the sofa was in the frame. But the Iowa University Press chose to crop the furniture out of the cover shot. Why? You can figure they'd have left it in if there'd been a rickety wooden chair under a bare lightbulb swinging on a frayed cord. But a book with a La-Z-Boy on the front doesn't exactly shriek "Death camp!"
When I was down there, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, who runs the joint, observed that most of what we know about prison camps comes from "bad movies and worse TV shows." And it's striking how reluctant the anti-Gitmo crowd are to abandon the clichés. There was a film out last year called The Road To Guantánamo, and the poster showed the usual emaciated husk hanging in chains from the dungeon wall. One trusts the actor in question did the full Robert De Niro and lost 40 lb. to get himself looking that cadaverous. Back in the real Gitmo, Admiral Harris invited me to sample some of the fresh-baked baklava his pastry chef had made the prisoners for Ramadan. They were truly scrumptious, but a week or two of those and the poster for The Road To Guantánamo would either be showing a dimpled blubbery bloated whale or the entire dungeon wall would have collapsed. It's the only death camp where you put on weight. Average gain: 18 lb.
For example, throughout his detention, the many fans of the "Australian Taliban" David Hicks insisted that, thanks to his Bush torturers, he was an "emaciated" "ghost." "His eyes are dark, sunken," said Hicks's lawyer, "his cheeks sallow, and he has a grey appearance."
Aussies expecting the emaciated, sunken, sallow ghost got a bit of a shock when he eventually showed up in court: "David Hicks has put on weight while in the prison and at Monday's hearing observers were surprised by his chubby appearance," the Sydney Morning Herald reported. Old torture accusation: American gulag starving inmates to death. New torture accusation: American gulag turning wiry jihadists into New Jersey lardbutts. Instead of leaping nimbly across the crags of the Hindu Kush, they're good for nothing but squeezing into stretch pants and waddling aimlessly round the souvenir shop before the early sitting for dinner theatre.
I'm not saying it's not a hellhole, but, if it is, it's a hellhole of a peculiarly American kind, from the baklava to the La-Z-Boy. Certainly, a sofa need not prevent a skilled torturer from practising his art, but the reluctance of the naysayers to engage with the specifics of Gitmo doesn't exactly bolster their credibility.