Matt Siegfried, a socialist and trade unionist activist from Detroit, looks at the fate of prisoners of war held at Guantanamo Bay.

This article first appeared in Fourthwrite No. 9.

The United States is the country with more people locked up, both as a percentage and in absolute numbers, than any other country in the world. The US puts to death dozens of people a year who are retarded or who were children when they supposedly committed the crimes they were convicted of. Now the US is putting prisoners of war in cages.

Since September 11th erstwhile liberals and defenders of civil liberties, former radicals and anti- Vietnam war protesters have been queuing up to extol patriotism in this new War for Civilisation. With the self-appointed status as Ambassadors of Freedom, as Bush has called his new friends in Hollywood and the media, many on the soft left of politics are entirely engaged in the propaganda effort.

Some deny any inconsistency between their warmongering and their principles. Others, like noted liberal law professor and defence attorney, Alan Dershowitz, who says he now accepts the use of torture to prevent acts of terror, argue that there are exceptions to their principles concerning human rights.

Squalid war of power & revenge

Happy in the fact that the US is finally engaged in a war they can support and thereby be viewed as fully American by the citadels of power in this country, they paint a picture with dangerous implications for the rest of the world of a United States both omnipotent and victimised. This squalid war of power and revenge (with happy and not entirely coincidental benefits for the defence and oil industries) is best viewed by the means with which it is being fought. One must ask oneself what kind of War of Civilisation is the US fighting this time when it makes common cause with the gangsters of the Northern Alliance to bring to heel the gangsters of the Taliban, both descendent of the Mujahedin gangsters it made common cause with in the last War for Civilisation against the Soviet Union?

With the aim of criminalising any opposition to its policies or its rule by dehumanising and depoliticising its opponents, the United States has engaged in the most egregious treatment of those captured. Those who survived the executions, massacres and suffocations of prisoners in Afghanistan find themselves in a legal limbo without rights and at the whim of their US captors.

The United States, under George W. Bush, already noted in his brief tenure for a propensity to pull out of, or disregard for international treaties it had previously signed, denies the captured Taliban fighters are prisoners of war and that the Geneva Conventions apply to the captured Al Qaeda fighters. Citing legal ambiguities as to the prisoners’ exact status, it ignores the clearest legal pronouncement of the Geneva Conventions – that the captor has no right to decide the status of the captured.

Kept in cages on a stolen sliver of Cuban soil in Camp X-Ray, the prisoners are routinely degraded and tortured psychologically and physically, using British and Israeli methods. Some have been drugged against their will. All have been forced to wear manacles, blindfolds and earplugs on their long trip to Guantanamo Bay. One can imagine the howls emanating from Washington or London if one of their soldiers were treated in this way and paraded around as trophies by Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Because of their ambiguous status the prisoners do not know where they will end up or for how long they will be held. If they are tried by military tribunals, it is very likely no one will know their fate. Most are foot soldiers, though some are leaders possibly responsible for crimes committed in Afghanistan against women, gays, lesbians, ethnic and religious minorities or leftists among others.

Those who committed crimes against the Afghan people should be tried by their victims, not by the imperialists or the imperialist backed government, who are guilty of the same or worse crimes! The United States has no right to try anybody concerning war crimes against humanity when it continues to practice such offences itself and on a global scale.

The policies of dehumanising and depoliticising prisoners of war is similar to the policies carried out by Britain against Irish prisoners of war, and currently and dramatically, by Turks against Kurdish and leftist prisoners and by Israel against Palestinian prisoners, among many other countries.

Struggle for human rights, justice & dignity

We on the left have every right to make a clear and bold distinction between those like the Irish, Kurdish and Palestinian prisoners, who belong to the most progressive forces of their respective countries on the one hand; and those like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who belong to the most reactionary forces of their respective countries on the other. This distinction, so clear to us, between those engaged in a struggle for liberation and those who seek the room to exploit on their own terms, is denied by the imperialists, who paint all obstacles in their path and resistance to their rule with the same brush.

Those of us on the left who fight against the barbaric treatment of Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners do it without political sympathy for those held. Neither do we fight against their brutal treatment simply because we know the imperialist governments have used similar techniques against people we do sympathise with, or indeed us and our comrades personally. We fight not just to block a precedent that will undoubtedly be used in an ever expanding war against terrorism.

We struggle for human rights, dignity and justice because we know that there is indeed a war for civilisation going on. In that war, which began long before September 11th, the United States is not the victim but the aggressor, and the civilisation we want ensures the humane treatment of all people, real justice and no need for cages and barbed wire to confine people.

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