Monday, November 16, 2009

A Detainee by Any Other Name

The New York Times reports that the governor of Illinois has offered up an empty prison outside of Illinois' Quad Cities as a possible alternative location for the prisoners at Guantanamo. Currently, the prisoners Guantanamo reside in inferior temporary housing. Meanwhile, in the heartland of America, a high security prison sits virtually empty. Oh, I beg your pardon, they are "terrorism suspects." And they are "housed" not imprisoned. The argument made by the Governor is that it would be an economic boost to the town in tough times. But there is a great deal more at stake here, and a great deal more to be gained from the move, for all of us.

While we hold these individuals in custody on an island thousands of miles from our homes, it is easy to vilify them, to dehumanize them and ultimately to forget about them completely. If they were here, even behind the seemingly impenetrable walls of a super max prison, we would be taking a small step back toward the humanity we so profoundly believe in, that we hope for on the part of our own soldiers at war and of which, I am afraid, we have completely lost sight in this case.

But we have a tendency to loose sight of things in a cloud of language and spin. When we went into Korea, it was a "police action" but the soldiers who were boots on the ground knew knew it was a War. When the pink slip arrives on your desk your company may be "right sizing" but you know you're out of a job. So we call these people "detainees." We don't want to call them prisoners because prisoners enjoy the privilege of at least a framework of rights and protections. Detainees do not. And in fact we can't call them prisoners because they haven't been tried, found guilty and sentenced. So we use the word "detainee" rather than "prisoner" because it sounds temporary, it sounds like an inconvenience. One is "detained" while the flight attendant retrieves the bag you left under your seat. One is "held prisoner" when one's spouse and children thousands of miles away, wait endlessly with no communication or promise of release .

Certainly, being "housed" in a "facility" that is designed for that purpose is a step in the right direction for the "guests of Uncle Sam" formerly "boarded" in ramshackle cells on Gitmo. But there would be a significant advantage to their captors, as well, that extends far beyond the boundaries of Thomson, Illinois. Prison guards, cooks and sanitation workers, construction workers, drivers and everyone else who comes in contact with the prisoners will be touched by them. These are no longer out of focus faces in the background of the news. They are men who look like men you know. Once you've made eye contact with a person, it is more difficult to imagine endorsing his simulated drowning. If your spouse comes home and tells you about one or to of the guys behind bars, its harder to stomach the fact that he has untreated TB. And if we see them as humans, and as humans under our care, then are we not more likely to treat them as humans? And if we treat them as humans, and they ultimately get out and report on the treatment, is it not better than tales of torture and deprivation? And if they take those better stories back to their families and their countries, then when a U.S. soldier is "detained" by a foreign government, have we not increased the likelihood that she will come home safe and sound and not the worse for her "detention"?

I confess that this is uncharacteristically inflamed rhetoric for me. I apologize, I am just frustrated by what seems to me to be the trampling of a very basic principle of what it means to be a nation based on inalienable rights, a signatory to the Geneva Convention, and a person made in the image of God. It comes down to an issue of "Us or Them." When we ask ourselves, how should we proceed, the answer is often so simple, and yet so very difficult to achieve. We should do unto Them as we would have Them do unto Us.

..and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 22:35-39)

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