Yesterday’s Thoughts

June 11, 2005

Gulag at Guantanamo

This post grew from I comment I posted at Pandagon.

Reading closely is a bad habit. It makes it hard to keep polite company.

Anne Applebaum writes an opinion piece in the Washington Post that is completely void of any factual claims to back her opinions. The facts she does produce argue against the point that she seeks to make.

The issue is a word in Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 2005. The sentence is, “The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law.” The word is “gulag.”

Applebaum begins her column by fondly remembering “sitting in the back of a library in London, reading through newsletters, pamphlets and other accounts of Soviet prison conditions published in the 1970s and ’80s by Amnesty International.”

Amnesty was good. They were throwing light into the dark corners of the Soviet system. “Amnesty, in other words, was an organization that once knew the meaning of the word ‘gulag,'” according to Applebaum.

There was one other good thing about Amnesty, “Amnesty also once knew the importance of political neutrality.”

And this was important, “In the Cold War era, this neutrality was important, since it prevented the organization’s publications, whether on prison food or prison deaths, from being seen as propaganda for one side or another.”

At this point, I have to ask, who is Applebaum kidding? Does she remember the Cold War? Does she remember the Soviet Union? Does she have any idea of what she is talking about? The Soviet Union routinely alledged that Amnesty’s reports were propaganda.

Random example, Yuri Orlov was sentenced to 7 years at hard labor, followed by 5 years of internal exile, for defamation of the Soviet Union. Translation, he co-founded and ran the Moscow Branch of Amnesty International. This was not seen as a neutral act by the Soviet Government. Obviously, Amnesty’s neutrality did not impress the Soviets.

Having, tossed out this canard, Applebaum is ready to get down to business.

I don’t know when Amnesty ceased to be politically neutral or at what point its leaders’ views morphed into ordinary anti-Americanism.

For those of you keeping score at home that single sentence contains the assumption of what Applebaum is seeking to prove, that Amnesty is not politically neutral. She doesn’t have to prove it because the subject isn’t up for debate, having happened sometime in the unspecified past. I only point this out, because you might have missed the logical fallacy, as it took cover undrr of the unsupported accusation (“ordinary anti-Americanism.”)

But surely Amnesty’s recent misuse of the word “gulag” marks some kind of turning point.

Ah, modern America, where using a word is evidence of anti-Americanism. I’ll have fries with that. French please. A liberal portion.

Applebaum, I suppose, is a serious journalist. To me, that means she should 1) be able to read and 2) be willing to read the original source. The Amnesty sentence says, “The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law.”

Amnesty does not say that, Guantánamo is exactly the same as the Soviet Gulags. It says that Guantánamo is “the gulag of our times.” The next phrase “entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law” defines how the two are similar.

This statement is factually accurate. The practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention are in violation of international law. Is there serious doubt about that? Applebaum apparently doesn’t think so,

I am appalled by this administration’s detention practices and interrogation policies, by the lack of a legal mechanism to judge the guilt of alleged terrorists, and by the absence of any outside investigation into reports of prison abuse.

The difference,

But I loathe these things precisely because the United States is not the Soviet Union, because our detention centers are not intrinsic to our political system, and because they are therefore not “similar in character” to the gulag at all.

I don’t really know what “not intrinsic to our political system” means. I hope it means that they are illegal under Untied States law, as well as under international law. I am afraid that it means that because we’re good people, or we had good intentions, or our courts will eventually intervene to stop them, we aren’t as bad as the Soviets, and that this degree of less badness gets us off the hook.

I assume that is is the last. She has a particular problem with Amnesty’s U.S. director, William Schulz, statement “that foreign governments should prosecute U.S. officials, as if they were the equivalent of the Soviet Union’s criminal leadership.”

This is such muddled thinking on some many counts. You cannot plead that you should be acquitted for stealing $500 because Joe stole $500,000. You cannot say that you should not even be tried because it was only a pitance. You cannot argue that the prosecutor is out to get you because she called both you and Joe thieves. And you cannot say that the prosecutor, whose career of honesty and integrity you have just finished praising, is a liar now that they have accused you.

If there is any evidence of Amnesty’s changing from a fair, accurate and neutral reporter of human rights abusers, to an organization with an anti-American agenda, Applebaum should produce it, but Amnesty’s previous history and reputation for political impartiality lead me to assume that they are acting the same way in this case, until proven otherwise.

If Amnesty, or any person or organization, is to have human rights standards, then those standards have to be applied irrespective of the parties involved.
Amnesty would be violating their principles if they were to give the US government a pass, or to water down the report.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.