Saturday, February 27, 2010

Guantanamo "suicides" and the difficulty of keeping secrets

An appalling story by Scott Horton, forthcoming in Harper's but now up on the web, offers very troubling evidence that three supposed suicides at Guantanamo were not that, and may instead have been homicides, deliberate or inadvertent, in the course of interrogation at an off-the-books building at the base. The killings are deeply disturbing. So is the possibility that there was a black site at Guantanamo, a site that highly disciplined soldiers obeyed orders to disregard. So is the strong suggestion of a deliberate coverup, while the military commander at Guantanamo accused the dead men of using suicide as a tactic. And so is the seemingly lackadaisical investigation of these events after one soldier, a witness to some of the relevant circumstances, came forward, with the aid of Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux, to report what he knew to the Obama Department of Justice.

Horton's revelations, which give substance to the concerns suggested by a Seton Hall analysis of military documents revealed under FOIA, also point to a striking feature of our lives today: it seems to be very hard to leave no tracks. Wrongdoers -- from common criminals to tyrants -- have always faced the problem of what to do with the witnesses. But the apparatus of modern power compounds this difficulty. The guards had routines, supposedly very vigilant ones; how could these suicides have been accomplished, under the scrutiny the prisoners were supposed to be subjected to? If the guards didn't follow the routines, why weren't they punished? (A military "informal investigation" attributed the guards' supposed failure to an atmosphere of "concessions" to the detainees' comfort.) If the men killed themselves by hanging, did the autopsies confirm that their necks and throats bore the marks of hanging rather than "manual strangulation"? Where were the neck organs of the dead men -- organs not present when their bodies were returned to their families?

These are hardly the first embarrassing revelations of the war on terror. No doubt we do not know everything that has been done in this war, but we know far more than those who aimed to keep the secrets would have preferred. The technology of oversight, and the tremendous systematization of our lives, may make all of us less free than we would prefer. But they also make it hard to be a bad guy anymore.

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