Kafka and Orwell Meet Reality: NYT Article on Guantánamo Shows that the June Suicides Were a Publicity Stunt After All
Today’s New York Times magazine has a lengthy and fascinating article on Guantánamo. Among other things, it confirms that the June suicides of three detainees was indeed a publicity stunt designed to put pressure on the United States to shut down the facility. The likelihood that the suicides were a planned act of asymmetrical warfare was something that Army officials (and I) pointed out at the time — and which lefty commenters ridiculed as an “Orwellian” and “Kafkaesque” position.
The article describes the plan as originating as early as July 2005. Col. Mike Bumgarner, the warden of Guantánamo, went to see Shaker Aamer, an alleged London Al Qaeda operative who spoke flawless English and had gained status among the detainees through sheer force of personality:
The colonel went to see Aamer at a small hospital inside the detention camp. He was sitting on a bed, one ankle chained to the frame, surrounded by some of the other more determined hunger-strikers. According to Bumgarner, Aamer told him that several of the detainees had had a “vision,” in which three of them had to die for the rest to be freed. Still, he agreed to try to persuade them to drop the protest.
No doubt some will ridicule this as a self-serving statement by the colonel. I encourage you to read the whole article before making such an argument. As the article makes clear, Colonel Bumgarner took great pains to try to make the detainees’ lives more bearable, to improve their living conditions, and to respond to their complaints, often meeting with them personally. These efforts caused great consternation among intelligence officials at Guantánamo, who wanted to be in charge of when privileges would be removed and reinstated:
Back at Bumgarner’s command center, some of his staff officers wondered about the wisdom of trying to solve such complaints. They were used to their commanders walking the blocks and occasionally speaking to prisoners; they were not accustomed to sit-downs. . . . Still, the unease of Bumgarner’s staff did not compare with the reaction he got from the intelligence side of the Guantánamo task force. There had long been tension between the two military units, but this time members of the Joint Intelligence Group “were furious,” one staff officer recalled. There were few privileges to give out at Guantánamo, this officer and others said, and interrogators felt they should be the ones to dispense them — in return for cooperation from the detainees.
There was a serious set of hunger strikes in December 2005. Contrary to the views of those (like commenter steve) who believed that Americans would be delighted at suicides by Guantánamo detainees, it is clear that Colonel Bumgarner took extraordinary measures to keep hunger strikers alive, despite their intense determination to expel any nutrition from their bodies:
By late November, while many of the strikers were maintaining their weight, four or five of them were becoming dangerously malnourished, [Navy Capt. John S. Edmondson, MD] said. By sucking on their feeding tubes, they had figured out how to siphon out the contents of their stomachs. Others simply vomited after they had been fed.
On Dec. 5, the guard force ordered five “restraint chairs” from a small manufacturer in Iowa. If obdurate detainees could be strapped down during and after their feedings, the guard officers hoped, it might ensure that they digested what they were fed.
Days later, a Navy forensic psychiatrist arrived at Guantánamo, followed by three experts from a Bureau of Prisons medical center in Missouri. Bumgarner said the visitors agreed with him that the strike was a “discipline issue”: “If you don’t eat, it’s the same as an attempted suicide. It’s a violation of camp rules.” In addition to feeding prisoners in the chair, some of the more influential hunger-strikers were sent off to Camp Echo with the hope of weakening the others’ resolve. The number of strikers, which was at 84 in early January, soon fell to a handful.
These measures initially appeared to work, and it seemed that our military was getting the upper hand on the hunger strikers. That proved to be an illusion when, in May, several detainees “ingested sleeping pills, antianxiety medication and antipsychotics” that they had been hoarding with the apparent cooperation of other detainees. These suicide attempts were unsuccessful — but then in June, three detainees, with no previous history of depression, hung themselves as part of an apparent plot to create a stir:
Some officials recalled the detainees’ premonition about three of them having to die. The medical staff tried to more closely monitor detainees with mental-health problems. But that screening apparently did not factor in the possibility that the men might have been determined to kill themselves for other reasons — like loyalty to a cause.
Sometime before midnight on June 9, three young Arab men, who were being held near one another in a single block of Camp 1, moved quietly to the backs of their small cells and began to string up nooses that had been elaborately made from torn linens and clothing. The bright lights had been turned down for the night. Still, the prisoners had to work quickly: guards were supposed to walk the block every three minutes.
After anchoring the nooses in the steel mesh walls of their cells, the three — Mani al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, both Saudis, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed, of Yemen — piled clothing under their bedsheets to make it appear that they were asleep. They stuffed wads of fabric into their mouths, either to muffle their cries or perhaps to help themselves suffocate. At least one of the men also bound his legs, military officials said, apparently so he would not be able to kick as he died.
With the nooses pulled over their heads, the prisoners slipped behind blankets they had hung over the back corners of their cells and stepped onto their small, stainless-steel sinks. The drop was short — only about 18 inches — but adequate. By the time they were discovered, doctors surmised, the men had been asphyxiated for at least 20 minutes and probably longer. Military and intelligence officials said it appeared that the other 20-odd prisoners on the block knew that the suicides were being prepared. Some may have prayed with the men, the officials said, and a few may have assisted in carrying out the plan. What is certain is that in contrast to most previous suicide attempts at the camp, none of the detainees made any effort to alert the guards.
These detainees had no record of psychological problems:
When doctors reviewed their files on the three men, they found that none of them had shown signs of depression or other psychological problems. All three had been on hunger strikes — one of them since the previous August — and at least two of them had been evaluated when they abandoned their protests. One doctor recalled one of the men telling him brightly: “I’m sleeping well. I feel well. No problems.”
Ironically, the colonel’s quality-of-life initiatives may have contributed to the detainees’ ability to kill themselves:
“We tried to improve their lives to the extent that we can — to the point that we may have gone overboard, not recognizing the real nature of who we’re dealing with,” he said. “I thought they had proven themselves. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I did not think that they would kill themselves.”
Bumgarner said he could not discuss the suicides because of the Navy’s continuing investigation. But several officials said that the three detainees had taken advantage of some of the colonel’s quality-of-life reforms, including the nighttime dimming of lights and the availability of extra clothing. There were also indications that Ghassan al-Sharbi, the colonel’s onetime interlocutor, had helped plan the suicides, two of the officials said.
The article states: “At a news conference hours after the suicides, the new Guantánamo commander, Admiral Harry Harris, described them as an act of ‘asymmetric warfare.'” Based on the article, it’s clear that this is so. In my post about the suicides, I agreed, saying (with deadpan sarcasm): “Islamic extremists committing suicide . . . why, it’s unprecedented! We have to shut the whole place down!”
In a comment, I accused the L.A. Times of playing into the terrorists’ hands by hyping the calls for Guantánamo to be shut down, noting: “The suicides also prompt[ed] the military to say that the suicides are part of an organized campaign to get an immediate shutdown.”
Commenter steve replied: “Kafka couldn’t have said it better.” assistant devil’s advocate disagreed, calling it “Orwellian” rather than Kafkaesque:
am i the only person here who recognized the statement of gitmo commander admiral harris “this was an act of asymmetric warfare against the united states” as an orwellian moral obscenity?
steve further opined: “Privately, they [American officials] may be loving this.”
Yet from the article, it appears clear that American officials were far from pleased at the suicides, and did everything they could to prevent them. Furthermore, the lefties were wrong to deride as “Orwellian” or “Kafkaesque” the military’s view of the suicides as an act of P.R. warfare. From all available evidence, that’s exactly what they were.
I encourage everyone to read the lengthy article. It makes a pretty good case for treating most standard detainees in a manner compliant with the Geneva Conventions. But keep in mind that the article covers a period of time when the worst of the worst, like 9/11 orchestrator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were being held in secret prisons abroad. Now that they are headed to Guantánamo, there is a real debate to be had about what the boundaries of effective interrogation should be for detainees like them.
What the article illustrates is that we are dealing with an enemy that is unlike us. Most Americans would never consider killing themselves to bring poor publicity to the country detaining us. These men went to great lengths to do exactly that. Whatever our policies are, they must take account of the fact that our detainees’ mindset is different from most of those we have encountered in the past.
UPDATE: Allah says I overstated things when I claimed that the article “confirms” that the suicides were a publicity stunt. Perhaps; I suppose the article is not bulletproof. The evidence quoted in the article relies in significant part on interviews of U.S. personnel. But the article as a whole claims to be “based on interviews with more than 100 military and intelligence officials, guards, former detainees and others” — and given the level of detail it contains, I find it quite convincing. Read it and judge for yourself.
UPDATE x2 12-9-06: I noticed that I had the month of the suicides wrong in the post, and fixed it (from July to June).