Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Beacon No. 91: “Let Me Get Back to You”


Words fail to express the slow-motion calamity that Guantánamo has become for U.S. soft power. It’s a bit like a merry-go-round that keeps bringing the same ugly news about U.S. policy to the world’s attention. And every so often, as with last weekend’s triple detainee suicide, the ride speeds up and flings riders off their horses into the political amusement park.

I can almost understand Rear Admiral Harry Harris Jr.’s comments about the suicides—almost, but not quite. Adm. Harris is the current Guantánamo camp commander, and the BBC described his reaction to the suicides thusly:

... Rear Adm. Harris said he did not believe the men had killed themselves out of despair.

"They are smart. They are creative, they are committed," he said.

"They have no regard for life, either ours or their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."

Harris could be precisely right; but you don’t just say something like that in public. Your first reaction, regardless of what military theories you subscribe to, is to show some form of sympathy for the loss of life.

Almost lost in the admiral’s wake are the comments of General Bantz J. Craddock, who heads U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), and whose theories about the suicides also seemed divorced from reality:

[Craddock] speculated that the suicides may have been timed to affect the Supreme Court decision on the [Salim Ahmed] Hamdan case.

“This may be an attempt to influence the judicial proceedings in that perspective,” he told reporters, according to a transcript of his comments to reporters during a brief visit to Guantánamo Sunday.

From what I understand, most Guantánamo inmates are kept in an information-deprived environment, particularly if they are being interrogated regularly. This is done to ease a subject out of his or her previous external reality and into an information environment that interrogators fully control, the better to get them to talk. In this light, it seems unlikely that the three suicides had a lot of information about the timing or substance of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld or even that the United States has a court system.

Sure these are flubs, you might say, but the speakers are top military men dedicated to fighting Al-Qa’ida and its ilk. However, along came remarks by a civilian administration official, who is currently one of the nation’s top public diplomats. Here’s the lede of a BBC story describing her remarks:

A top US official has described the suicides of three detainees at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a "good PR move to draw attention".

[Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy] Colleen Graffy told the BBC the deaths were part of a strategy and "a tactic to further the jihadi cause", but taking their own lives was unnecessary.

But lawyers say the men who hanged themselves had been driven by despair.

A military investigation into the deaths is under way, amid growing calls for the centre to be moved or closed.

Speaking to the BBC's Newshour programme, Ms Graffy ... said the three men did not value their lives nor the lives of those around them.

Detainees had access to lawyers, received mail and had the ability to write to families, so had other means of making protests, she said, and it was hard to see why the men had not protested about their situation.

The U.S is not well-served by a public diplomat whose first reaction is to a cluster of suicides is, “Some people will do anything to get on television.” It wouldn’t have been too much to ask for Ms. Graffy to deflect the Guantánamo question—which she had to have known was coming—to her bosses.

(Thanks to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the BBC item.)

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