Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Reflections on the Bay

I have visited the United States about a dozen or two times. The people are friendly, the country is open, the history short but astonishingly impressive. I like Americans a lot. I respect their Constitution as possibly the single most important political document in history. I probably would have voted for George W Bush in 2000 were I an American and, like so many people worldwide, I was appalled at the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Yet, a few weeks shy of the second anniversary of the September 11 tragedy, I find myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the USA's attitude to the world.

It started within hours of the September 11 attack. I saw a tiny part of the huge flood of email that the attack unleashed, including one from an American colleague who said words to the effect that "People need to decide whether they're for or against the USA and we'll nuke those who are against." At the time I expressed my disquiet to one of the people in this email discussion and she said that the man writing it "needed to vent". He probably did, and in the immediate aftermath, such venting was not uncommon and was generally accepted. The attack was horrific, unprecedented, immensely cruel and quite unjustified.

Going on for two years later, much has changed - some for the better, some not. Many questions remain and many new ones arise as I observe world developments.

Was it right for the United States to try to track down and bring to justice those who planned the attack and were almost certainly planning more? I think so.

Was it right for the United States to topple a foreign government in pursuit of this aim? In the case of Afghanistan and the Taliban, almost certainly yes. There appears little doubt that the Taliban were sheltering terrorists, that these terrorists had committed atrocities and that these terrorists were planning more of the same. A country has the right to defend itself and to retaliate when attacked.

However, I am not happy with defending a number of the other actions of the United States government.

I cannot justify indefinite holding of captives in Guantanamo Bay. The US Constitution itself says

'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

Of course, people may put their life and liberty at risk. Criminals may be caught and punished and in the USA such punishment may include loss of life. Other parts of the constitution describe how the courts shall rule and their limitations. These include the "right to a speedy and public trial" (Amendment VI).

However, it appears that the United States government seeks to divide the citizens of the world into two classes - and to treat these two classes very differently. United States citizens are to be subject to one set of laws, other citizens to another.

In the case of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay,

- they have no right to freedom

- they have no right to a speedy trial

- they have no right to a public trial

- they have no right to appoint their free choice of lawyer

- they may be detained indefinitely

- the conditions in which they are detained are murky and suspected of being unacceptable in the Western World

- there appears to be little knowledge of the laws they are alleged to have broken

- their families appear to have few visitation rights

I could go on.

It may well be that many are guilty of heinous crimes. In that case, they should be charged; the charges should be publicly known; they should have the right to appoint their own lawyers; the trial should be publicly held, excepting possibly where secret information might be divulged that might imperil the USA or its allies.

It may also be that some are innocent; in the fog of war innocent people do often get caught up. It may be that others are guilty of foolishness rather than wickedness. It's hardly unlikely that many will have grown up or lived in an environment where truth and a clear view of the world were uncommon and they may well have been brainwashed.

For whatever reason, the government of the United States does not wish to bring these people to trial under United States laws. It runs a terrible risk; that people worldwide will perceive one type of justice for Americans and another for the rest of the world; that the values of the American nation, painstakingly developed over two centuries will be endangered; ultimately that the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers will indeed have started a process that undermines the greatest power and the most free country in written history.

America does not deserve this fate. Ultimately, only Americans can avoid it.

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