THE SHAME OF GITMO – In allowing prisoner abuse in the name of national security, the U.S. sinks to the level of the world’s most barbarous regimes

Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on November 17, 2008

November 14, 2008

Neil Steinberg - Sun-Times Columnist by Neil Steinberg – Sun-Times Columnist


It is 8,386 miles, as the crow flies, from a filthy solitary confinement cell at Burma’s infamous Insein Prison to the Grand Ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on East Pearson Street in Chicago.

The moral distance is even further, from a freedomless police state whose official name — Myanmar — decent people hesitate to utter because of the illegitimacy of the government, to the United States of America, where the police don’t put a hood over your head and drag you off to years in solitary confinement for asking inconvenient questions, as happened to Burmese dissident Bo Kyi.

Yet Bo Kyi calmly bridged this enormous gap Tuesday, when he quietly addressed the Human Rights Watch dinner honoring him for his role in founding the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners.

The room gasped as he told of learning that some of his friends in Burma had just received 65-year prison sentences for activities that any college sophomore in the United States does out of habit — attending protests, distributing leaflets.

I was gratified to see this news the next day in the New York Times. One of the most vital roles the United States plays is to keep tabs on the wrongs of the world. While appeals to justice and decency usually mean nothing to tyrants, they can be embarrassed, eventually.

Our own government has proved hard to shame. Several Human Rights Watch speakers mentioned Guantanamo Bay, and how they look forward to Barack Obama closing this blot on America’s reputation.

Too many Americans don’t see the stain. They view reluctance to allow our nation to run a quasi-torture confinement center for foreign nationals as some kind of squishy “reading rights to terrorists” bleeding-heart liberalism.

They don’t understand the company we’re keeping, don’t realize just how frequently torture is used around the world. Nor do they grasp that their excuse — national security —is the exact same rationale offered up by every barbarous regime for the confinement and abuse of heroic champions of justice such as Bo Kyi.

They don’t grasp the specialness of the United States in historically avoiding this kind of behavior, nor the endangerment not only to our own rights — because what the military does today to foreign detainees in Cuba, the police could do to you tomorrow in Chicago — but also Guantanamo’s undermining of our moral authority to push back against regimes in places such as Burma. Guantanamo Bay made it easier for every tin-pot dictator who hangs his enemies on basement meat hooks to claim moral equivalency.

And for what? For the TV fantasy of the smirking terrorist who tells us where the bomb is hidden after Jack Bauer does what he has to do? That might work in “24.” But in the real world, we get hapless goat herders turned into hardened enemies after being subjected to years of abuse.

The truth is, in times of peril, our nation’s overreactions — from Lincoln suspending habeas corpus to the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II to Guantanamo Bay — never make us safer, never improve the situations they were meant to confront.


The United States is not strong because it crushes all who challenge it. We are strong because our laws and our principles are strong, and to the degree that we adhere to them — even when that is difficult, even when we are afraid — we will remain a beacon to the world, the whispered hope for every political prisoner in every cell around the globe.

Give us the good cookies!

“Did you know that Oreo cookies aren’t as sweet in China as they are here?” I told my wife.

She asked me how I came to this news, and I told her that the Wall Street Journal selected my pal Irene Rosenfeld, chairman and CEO of Kraft, as one of its “50 Women to Watch.” (A tad condescending, isn’t it? Is the head of a $34 billion company, a woman Forbes magazine listed as being more powerful than Oprah Winfrey or Queen Elizabeth II, really just “poised to have an impact on the world of business”? I’d say she’s there.)

The article uses the Chinese Oreo as example of Rosenfeld’s nimble leadership.

“Marketers there learned the cookie was too sweet for Chinese tastes, so they reformulated it.”

My wife’s reaction mirrored my own.

“Why do they get the good ones?” she asked. Indeed. Sweetness is far overrated. I prefer my chocolate like my life — bittersweet.

And since Kraft is already wildly experimenting with Oreo — double-stuffed, mint filling, you name it — I think they owe us over-sugared Americans the Oreo: Special Refined Chinese Version. At least have an executive bring back a package from Beijing, and we’ll open up a branch of the Chicago Sun-Times Test Kitchen at Kraft, pour the cold milk and see what the Chinese know that we don’t.

Today’s chuckle . . .

My brother Sam is a sharp guy. I don’t write about him much — he oils the gears of the Cook County government money machine — because I don’t want to sully him by association.

But we share that rarest of fraternal qualities, mutual affection, and have lunch as often as we can.

We had just finished polishing off two big platters of raw fish at Sushi Sai and stepped out into the surprisingly sunny November afternoon. Talk had been of the accelerating economic doom, and I was prattling on about how scary and incomprehensible it all is.

“I don’t WANT to go through five years of recession!” I whined, tot-like.

We were nearing the County Building.

“My only solace is that all the financial experts predict a long and protracted recession,” my brother said.

I took me half a second to grasp his meaning; his humor can be very dry. Then I got it.

“Ahhh . . . ” I said, grinning, and holding up a finger

“Ahhh . . . ” he answered, holding up one in reply. We shook hands, and I toddled up the street, my heart swelled with love and joy.



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