Qaida exploits America’s credibility gap on Gitmo

We are training the enemy.

I didn’t say it. A recent article in The New York Times did. While some might doubt the truth of that statement because of the rumored liberal tendencies of said publication, the doubters would surely not argue with Robert Richer, associate director of operations for the CIA in 2004 and 2005. He was quoted as saying that “the jihadis returning from Iraq are far more capable than the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets ever were. … They have been fighting the best military in the world, with the best technology and tactics.”

To a certain extent, this makes sense. Any group fighting the American army is bound to learn a few tricks of the trade, as a result of the high levels of expertise, training and technology available to our military. But I didn’t even tell you the most worrying part of the article. Apparently, recently disclosed intelligence reveals that a new generation of al-Qaida leaders, many in their 30s, is emerging. Adapting to new circumstances, they favor diffuse leadership, with “several planning hubs working autonomously.” In other words, the groups against which America is waging its war on terror are evolving. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for us.

On Wednesday the BBC published the findings of a report by Amnesty International about the Guantanamo Bay facility. The report states that “with many prisoners already in despair at being held in indefinite detention … some are dangerously close to full-blown mental and physical breakdown.”

This report comes in addition to the multiple films that have been made about prisoners in Guantanamo, their treatment, and their true background. Clearly, American interest, not the opinions of non-governmental organizations or the opinions of documentaries, should form the basis for American foreign policy. But that’s where it gets tricky. This spate of bad reviews of Guantanamo Bay — political bias notwithstanding — does have an influence on America.

The Internet has ushered in an age in which credibility gaps are no longer concealed or tolerated as easily as they once were. The credibility gap afforded to governments is, in fact, very slim. The dichotomy between communist propaganda about the liberation of the proletariat — the land of milk and honey and all that — and the truth of poverty and starvation was one of the elements that tipped the Cold War in favor of America. In a dictatorship, in which the government controls all information and media, such a dichotomy could be maintained with sealed borders and compliant PR people. Hence the Berlin Wall.

America, thankfully, believes in a different route. Information is open to the voting public, so we run less risk of having the wool pulled over our eyes. That is why the Supreme Court battles over the legal status of the prisoners and their rights to habeas corpus are being waged in public, with decisions announced to the American voters, and thanks to the Internet, to the entire world.

Recently, the Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 against hearing Guantanamo inmates’ claims that their rights to habeas corpus were being denied. Two of the six voted as they did because the inmates have not yet exhausted all levels of appeals, but the decision has already generated publicity and elicited a spectrum of reactions. Hina Shamsi, a lawyer for Human Rights First, called it “a punt for a year — and that comes after five years of delay.” While the decision did not outright deny habeas corpus to foreign nationals, many view it negatively considering that only a year ago, the president and the then-Republican Congress stripped the inmates of this right.

Most importantly, the people who are now filling in the ranks of al-Qaida are hearing about the decision and the conditions of Guantanamo. While our prosecution of these 385 inmates stalls in legal proceedings, their organizations are growing and evolving, making the information the inmates can offer more and more useless. We must ensure that we are not falling prey to the same trap — the credibility gap — that felled the Soviet Union. Since we are dealing with an international, non-state actor, our opinion isn’t the only one that matters anymore. We should care if any member of the global village believes we have a credibility gap. If a Sudanese man, for example, thinks America has a credibility gap, he is more likely to sign up for al-Qaida.

At the most instinctive level, perhaps what drives the criticism of Guantanamo is the apparent hypocrisy of it. We say we are fighting enemies who refuse to see us as humans, who uncompromisingly insist that we are evil. Yet we still find it just to refuse these enemies the rights we deem absolutely necessary for our citizens. We treat them, it seems, as people so evil they do not merit the treatment we expect for ourselves. Whether that amounts to a credibility gap is for the American public to decide. Should you believe it does, you have the responsibility to act on that belief.

Dariush Nothaft is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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