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Nicholas Kristof, writing today in the New York Times, delivers us a Valentine straight from the Bush Administration’s Ministry of Love. Of course, you remember that ministry. It’s not filled with boxes of chocolates wrapped in fancy papers and decorated with pudgy cherubs. No, I mean the Ministry of Love that Orwell crafted in Nineteen Eighty-Four and which President Bush has done his damnedest to fashion today, spread across a great archipelago that starts at Guantánamo and ends—heavens knows where. Orwell’s Ministry of Love is where criminals are tortured, rehabilitated, then set free or killed, but it’s particularly set aside for the political criminals, those who threaten the regime. As soon as Winston is captured he knows he is going to the Ministry of Love. The Ministry of Love had no windows; before his arrest Winston, though a member of the party, had never been inside. It was a place impossible to enter except on official business, and then only by penetrating through a maze of barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine-gun nests. Even the streets leading up to its outer barriers were roamed by gorilla-faced guards in black uniforms, armed with jointed truncheons. The Ministry of Love was a temple to a great idol, John Donne might have said, and the name of that idol was Torture.
And today Kristof gives us the story of a journalist who was seized and locked away in Gitmo, and who is being tortured, twice a day. What’s his offense? None has been charged. It seems evident that his prime offense is simple: he is a journalist who worked for a broadcaster that the Bush regime despises: al Jazeera. That was plenty of reason to seize and torture him.
And what does the Bush Administration reap for the United States through its unjustified imprisonment and torture of al-Hajj? Hatred around the world, of course, the just fruits reaped by any tyrannical conduct. Kristof:
The most famous journalist you may never have heard of is Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who is on a hunger strike to protest abuse during more than six years in a Kafkaesque prison system.
Mr. Hajj’s fortitude has turned him into a household name in the Arab world, and his story is sowing anger at the authorities holding him without trial. That’s us. Mr. Hajj is one of our forgotten prisoners in Guantánamo Bay.
If the Bush administration appointed an Under Secretary of State for Antagonizing the Islamic World, with advice from a Blue Ribbon Commission for Sullying America’s Image, it couldn’t have done a more systematic job of discrediting our reputation around the globe. Instead of using American political capital to push for peace in the Middle East or Darfur, it is using it to force-feed Mr. Hajj.
Of course there is nothing offensive per se about force-feeding a prisoner on a hungerstrike. If he faces starvation or serious impairment of bodily functions, force-feeding may be an appropriate step. The question is how the force-feeding occurs. There are in fact clear internationally agreed upon standards for forced-feeding, prepared with the participation of Americans, called the Declaration of Malta. The standards were initially set down in 1991 and then revised in 2006. The purpose of the standards is simple: it differentiates between forced-feeding for purposes of saving the life of a person in detention and forced-feeding administered as a form of torture.
What is going on in Guantánamo consciously avoids the Malta standards not because there would be any difficulty complying with the standards, but because it is intended to be a form of torture.
Mr. Hajj began his hunger strike more than a year ago, so twice daily he is strapped down and a tube is wound up his nose and down his throat to his stomach. Sometimes a lubricant is used, and sometimes it isn’t, so his throat and nose have been rubbed raw. Sometimes a tube still bloody from another hunger striker is used, his lawyers say. “It’s really a regime to make it as painful and difficult as possible,” said one of his lawyers, Zachary Katznelson.
Mr. Hajj cannot bend his knees because of abuse he received soon after his arrest, yet the toilet chair he was prescribed was removed — making it excruciating for him to use the remaining squat toilet. He is allowed a Koran, but his glasses were confiscated so he cannot read it.
So what does the Bush Administration want from al-Hajj? Do they believe he committed a crime? No. Do they think he has vital intelligence they could use to avert attacks? Not really. They may say they think he has vital information, but he’s been in custody for six years. At this point what could he know? No, al-Hajj told his lawyer that his interrogators have attempted to recruit him to be an internal spy inside of al-Jazeera, and it’s been signaled to him repeatedly that he can walk out free if he will agree. Let’s be thankful for small things. At least that’s a rational reason for the detention of al-Hajj. It’s also dispicable. And al-Hajj is not the only journalist in detention who’s been solicited to spy on the news organization for which he works. I know of two other cases.
Of course, that’s the kind of conduct that a totalitarian regime engages in. Not a democracy that respects freedom of the press and respects the people’s right to know what their leaders are doing.
On Valentine’s Day 2008, Sami al-Hajj sits in the clutches of the Ministry of Love. And he’s not alone. The Bush Administration and their wingnut sympathizers will vilify him and anyone else that the Bush Administration chooses to seize and mistreat. But at some point, Americans should begin to focus again on a concept which Bush has worked feverishly to suppress for seven years. It’s called justice. Valentine’s Day is a good time to put in a word for justice and the protection of those who suffer abuse and mistreatment from a regime that doesn’t understand the term.
More from Scott Horton:
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Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution
“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”