Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I recommend reading the cover-story of the latest New York Times magazine, on Guantanamo Bay by Tim Golden, for the reason I generally recommend things: it's very well-written. That said, the essay is very coy on what really happens at Guantanamo: who does the interrogation, for example. Clearly it isn't Col. Mike Bumgarner, the star of the piece. His mandate, as he recounts, was to administer Guantanamo, and bring it, as far as possible, under the Geneva Conventions. But what is missing from the account is how. Bumgarner doesn't seem to have been in charge of interrogations, which presumably were handled by the CIA, but only with the day-to-day administration of the prison. The inmates demanded -- and got -- from him better food, water, more Korans and more prayer-time. At no point does he seem to have been involved in the actual interrogations. Only later did the issue of trials and habeus corpus -- the most important issues at the heart of Guantanamo -- come up.

I remain unimpressed by some of the demands: the demands for more Korans and more prayer-time, and -- astoundingly -- less disturbance during prayer time almost seem like luxuries. I am wondering: do civil prisioners in the US get this right? And yet, I believe these demands did lead to the ones the detainees -- all of us, actually -- care about the most: the right to a trial and the right not to be imprisioned without reason on someone's whim.

Still some of the quotes in the essay astonished me. This one, for instance.
“If people’s basic human rights were respected, I don’t think they would have had any of these problems,” said Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban cabinet minister and ambassador to Pakistan who was the pre-eminent leader of Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo before his release in the late summer of 2005. “There were no rules and no law. Any guard could do whatever they wanted to do.”
A Taliban cabinet minister talking about basic human rights. It's a bit rich, no? Oh well, better late than never.

Readers might want to read the Times magazine piece along with this New York Review of Books piece. Here's something from the piece, admittedly trivial, that I was curious about:

Enemy Combatant has been praised in Britain for Begg's outstanding liberality of mind and evenhandedness toward his captors, some of whom are described as unfeeling brutes, others as decent human beings who become his "friends." Unfortunately, these relationships are rendered in long passages of direct speech, and Begg and/or his coauthor are notably talentless at writing dialogue. So one has to plow through exchanges like this one, with a Republican-voting soldier from Alabama named Jennifer:
Once, she confided, "When we were briefed about this place we weren't relishing the idea of spending a long time here. Gitmo was home to the 'worst of the worst,' they said. Then a handful of us were chosen for this mission in Echo, maximum-security isolation block, where the most dangerous terrorists in the whole island were kept. I was expecting a Hannibal Lecter/Agent Starling type situation, with you guys trying to terrify us using perverse mind games...."

"So how does it feel, discussing Les Misérables with one of the most dangerous men on earth?"

"I can see now how we all bought the hype. I don't know if they've even accused you of anything, but I know y'all can't be guilty. The government would have displayed their strongest evidence in a sensational show trial by now... I expected you to hate all Americans after all you've been through, especially us soldiers. But you're wonderfully complex, Moazzam. All the things I'd expect you to be, you're not."

Perhaps Begg really did strike up a warm relationship with soldier Jennifer, but all one can say of the words on the page is that they are resoundingly phony. Only in bad fiction do people speak this way, and true though Begg's story may well be in its essential facts, it is very poorly served by line after line of rankly implausible writing.

What do you think, guys? Do the words sound phony to you too? They do to me -- although my point would be that they sound like fiction, but not necessarily bad fiction. No?

Also in the Review, a lucid Timothy Garton-Ash piece, on Europe, that I find myself whole-heartedly agreeing with.

Finally, Michiko Kakutani is not one of my favorite critics, but for a classic example of how not to write a book-review, see here -- this is a hysterical piece of writing, filled with outrage but very little analysis. To compare, click here and here.

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