OUR OWN WORST ENEMY? - By Dr.Hesham A. Hassaballa

Guantanamo prison defiles principles dearly bought

By Hesham A. Hassaballa
a Chicago doctor and writer

June 19, 2005

The news coming from Guantanamo Bay has not been pleasant.

The bad press seemed to begin with the Newsweek story about guards flushing the Koran down the toilet, sparking violent protests across the Muslim world. Although the magazine officially retracted the story, similar allegations had been made previously by former detainees.

The Pentagon later released a report confirming "mishandling" of the Koran by U.S. personnel, some of which might not have been entirely unintentional.

Now there is more bad news.

The June 20 issue of Time magazine details the treatment of Mohamed al-Qahtani, a Saudi man believed to be the "20th hijacker," who was captured in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

According to the magazine, an 84-page log chronicling al-Qahtani's interrogation detailed several harsh techniques, including making him bark like a dog and forcing him to urinate in his pants.

All this has prompted several calls for the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Former President Jimmy Carter was quoted by The Associated Press as saying, "The U.S. continues to suffer terrible embarrassment and a blow to our reputation . . . because of reports concerning abuses of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo."

Several senators have echoed this concern, including prominent Republicans such as Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who said closing Guantanamo would help America in the "image war around the world."

In addition, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said Guantanamo has "become an icon for bad stories, and at some point you wonder about the cost-benefit ratio."

I am heartened by such criticism.

Still, their calls give me pause, and it is because of the reason: America's image.

Although it is true that Guantanamo has become an enormous liability with respect to America's image, especially in the Muslim world, we should not shut down the camp because it makes America look bad.

Rather, we should close the facility because what is occurring there is patently un-American.

Let us step back for a moment and examine the situation: About 540 detainees are being held by the U.S. incommunicado without charge or trial, a detention that, according to Vice President Dick Cheney, the administration has no plans of ending anytime soon.

It has been confirmed that several detainees have been subject to harsh interrogation, if not outright torture, and that many interrogators have shown total disrespect for detainees' religious beliefs.

What has happened to us?

We are a nation that prides itself on upholding the rule of law and the principles of freedom and justice. Detaining people for years on end without charge--and mistreating them--is an affront to those principles. Even the most hardened criminal cannot be denied the right of due process guaranteed by the Constitution.

Why, then, should it be any different with those held at Guantanamo?

I am not oblivious to the fact that we were attacked and that thousands of Americans were murdered on Sept. 11, 2001. I am not oblivious to the fact that we face a ruthless enemy with no regard for human life.

But do we abandon the moral high ground simply because our enemy is brutal and inhuman?

The vice president defends Guantanamo by reminding us that the people held there "are bad people. I mean, these are terrorists for the most part."

First, that is not entirely accurate.

Army Sgt. Erik Saar, a former Arabic translator at the prison, told the Christian Science Monitor: "I thought these were `the worst of the worst' hardened terrorists, but I soon realized many didn't fit that category, not only by talking to detainees, but by having access to intelligence which said that."

He estimated that only a few dozen are the "worst of the worst."

But even if every single detainee at Guantanamo is a hardened terrorist, we still should not simply lock them up and throw away the key. Not because our enemy deserves our kindness, but because we are America, and we are much better than that.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Bush administration is not allowed to detain foreign terrorist suspects without access to lawyers and courts.

Yet we as a people should have already known that.

Interrogation is an important activity, but it must never be an excuse to abuse suspects. Waging a war on terrorism is a vital task, but it must never be a license to abandon the principles for which thousands of Americans have sacrificed their lives.

There are many who contend that the terrorists hate us for who we are, that they attacked us because of our way of life. If then, in response, we betray our principles and act like the terrorists themselves, then hasn't our enemy already won?

Hesham A. Hassaballa


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