NEW YORK—Francois Mitterand brought civilization to France. One of his first acts as president was to end the death penalty. A guy named Philippe Maurice had his date with the guillotine cancelled.
Amazing but true: The country that gave the world "The Rights of Man" was still lopping off heads in 1981. Fortunately, things change. Other countries followed France's lead. Today, just a quarter century later, fewer than a quarter of the world's nations still carry out capital punishment. Nations that do can't get into the European Union.
Our next president—probably Barack Obama—has a similar opportunity to create a transformative moment toward a fully civilized United States. I'm not talking about abolishing executions, though that is long overdue. President Obama (or McCain) should close Guantanamo.
Not after appointing a commission to look into it. Not after finding a nation willing to take the detainees. Like Mitterand, he should do it immediately. After years of denial, Bush administration officials now admit that hundreds of men and children—as young as 13—have been tortured and abused at Gitmo. Inmates were penned up in dog cages, denied exercise and waterboarded.
One guard vehemently denied urinating on a prisoner's Koran. His defense? "The guard had left his observation area post and went outside to urinate," according to a Defense Department report. "He urinated near an air vent and the wind blew his urine through the vent into the [prisoner's cell]." He wasn't trying to pee on the Koran. He was trying to pee on the prisoner. His urine had inadvertently splashed on the book.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the inmates—who'd been sold to U.S. troops by Afghan warlords, locked up for years without being accused, denied access to an attorney or their families, denied most of all of hope—freaked out. Some hung themselves. Others went on hunger strikes. The military's response? Suicide, they said, was a diabolically clever act of "asymmetrical warfare." They strapped the strikers into chairs, pried open their jaws and jammed feeding tubes down their throats so roughly that they vomited blood.
Most of this kind of fun, the government claims, no longer happens at Club Gitmo. But there's no way to verify that. Reporters and human rights groups are denied access to the facility and its miserables. Wherever there's a secret, there's something to hide. Like the detainees, Guantanamo should be presumed guilty until it is proven innocent.
Life at Guantanamo has entered a second phase. Originally dedicated to the forceful extraction of information about impending terrorist attacks, prisoner interrogations now torture inmates in order to obtain information on activities within the camp itself. "The primary focus is the safety of the detainees as well as the detainee guard force, and that's why we have this intelligence activity," said the camp's commander, Navy Rear Adm. David Thomas in August. In other words, the circumstances of the prisoners' incarceration necessitate further incarceration.
Kafka would have loved it. We keep them in Gitmo, not to keep us safe, but to keep Gitmo itself safe.
As anyone who has spent time behind bars will attest, uncertainty is worse than abuse. Bruises heal; urine dries. Not knowing whether you will ever again be free to walk down a street, sit in a cafe or hug your children is constant torment. You deaden your emotions in order to survive, wondering whether you'll ever be able to get them back.
Perhaps the most sinister aspect of America's premier gulag, however, is its use and abuse of military and civilian courts. The quasi-judicial system set up to process the detainees is itself a paragon of psychological torture characterized by sadistic glee and aggressive indifference.
There is, of course, the case of the Uyghurs, Muslims who live in China's far west Xinjiang province, which is part of Central Asia. Guantanamo's Uyghurs are members of the East Turkestan Independence Movement, encouraged by U.S.-financed Radio Free Asia to rise up against Chinese occupation. They obtained weapons training at camps in neighboring Afghanistan. After 9/11, however, China threatened to use its U.N. Security Council veto to stop the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan unless the Bush administration threw its pet Uyghurs under the bus.
The United States promptly reversed its policy, not only declaring ETIM an officially-designated "terrorist organization," but agreeing to dispatch its leaders to Guantanamo. Bush even invited officers from China's Ministry of State Security to interrogate the Uyghurs at Gitmo, softening them up with torture before the Chinese arrived.
The Uyghur prisoners cooperated with interrogators. The Pentagon concluded they weren't anti-American. "[The Uyghurs] were transferred to Guantanamo more than six years ago and were cleared for release in 2004," according to Newsweek.
Proven innocent, the United States has kept them at Gitmo for the last four years. They can't go back to China. Why? "The U.S. government credibly feared they would be tortured." Well, they would know.
Except for Albania, which agreed to take five Uyghurs in 2006, other countries don't want to validate Guantanamo by accepting those released through its illegal military tribunal system. "The Bush administration has conceded that none of the Uyghurs is an enemy combatant," reports Newsweek. A federal judge ruled that 17 Uyghur detainees be freed from Gitmo and brought to the United States. That should have been that. But when it comes to Gitmo, it never is.
Government lawyers persuaded an appeals court to stay the ruling, arguing that the 17 Uyghurs are dangerous. Get this—they're dangerous to America because, the Justice Department argues in court documents, the Uyghurs "were detained for six years by the country [the United States] to which the district court has ordered them brought." They may not have hated America before—but they might now.
This week the Pentagon decided not to pursue charges against five other Gitmo prisoners. Apparently government prosecutors were afraid that the trials—even those conducted by the military's kangaroo courts—would publicize how people are treated at America's Devil's Island. "They have been cornered into doing this to avoid admitting torture," said Claire Algar, executive director of the legal group Reprieve.
So the lucky five go free, right? Wrong. "There are no plans to free any of the men, and the military said it could reinstate charges later," writes the Associated Press.
Bush, it came out recently, "never considered proposals" to close Gitmo. Both Obama and McCain say they want to shut it down, but neither has said when. Their reticence stems from the mentality expressed by a Bush administration official: "The new president will gnash his teeth and beat his head against the wall when he realizes how complicated it is to close Guantanamo."
There is nothing complicated about it. Gitmo is useless. It's evil. It—and the secret detentions at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere—have destroyed America's reputation far too long.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.