Amnesty International is at it again. But don’t panic: It’s not time for another Sting benefit concert. No, I refer here to their recent pronouncement that the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons have become “the gulag of our time,” which is the sort of hyperbole that only the historically illiterate are capable of. Carelessly tossing around terms like “gulag” trivializes history’s great horrors, just as when PETA called the eating of meat a “holocaust on your plate,” or whenever Republicans (or, to be fair, feminists) are called Nazis, or when Ted Kennedy gravely announced that Abu Ghraib under U.S. forces had merely “reopened under new management.”
Still, you can see why someone with only a smattering of historical knowledge would make such a mistake. Gee, if only there were some written record of the real Soviet gulag. Some major, Nobel Prize-worthy literary work, written by someone who actually experienced it. A book so compelling that it might have helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union the same way Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped end the brutality of slavery.
Wait, there is such a book: Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Now, you’d think that a spokesman for Amnesty International would be familiar with one of the most important books about human rights ever published, even minus the “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker I always look for in the bookstore. In fact, I would have thought that every new Amnesty International employee would be issued a complimentary copy of The Gulag Archipelago during his employee orientation, along with a parking sticker, laminated photo I.D., and a booklet listing human-rights-friendly local merchants (see your local chapter for details).
Short Memories at Amnesty
For their edification, the Soviet gulag consisted of hundreds, possibly thousands of forced labor camps that existed from the time of the Russian revolution right up through the Gorbachev era. (As a literary device, Solzhenitsyn compared them to an archipelago or system of islands, which in this case were connected only figuratively). Here somewhere between 18 million and 25 million Soviet citizens–not foreign-born terrorists or enemy combatants, but Soviet citizens, mostly–were housed in POW-style barracks and given just enough nourishment, usually, to survive. Unlike POWs, or the current residents of Guantanamo, gulag residents performed slave labor in the mines, forests, and farms of the Soviet empire. This vast pool of unpaid labor was, in fact, instrumental in propping up the otherwise unsustainable Soviet economy.
Solzhenitsyn writes that the gulag interrogators weren’t content to simply torture until the pain became so unbearable that one cried out, “I’m guilty. Where do I sign?” Instead, detainees were required to guess which counterrevolutionary crime they had supposedly committed by confessing to one, then another, then another, and so on until by sheer trial and error they stumbled upon which particular, imaginary offense “against the people” their interrogators had pre-determined them guilty of. Only then would the pain stop, making the gulag interrogation process something of a macabre game show. Except that instead of cash and prizes contestants fought for their lives while suspended from a ceiling by their heels with electrodes stuck in their various orifices.
Which is not to say that life inside the gulag was without its perks. These included hands-on training in exciting industries like strip-mining and pole-cat skinning, as much sawdust and fish-head soup as you could eat, sometimes twice a day, and a dental plan which consisted of the occasional rifle butt to the mouth. Plus, many of the camps were located in virtually uninhabitable Siberia, the kind of place where the start of the brief summer season was announced by the appearance of ravenous, crow-sized mosquitoes. The kind of place where any day in which the temperature approached zero degrees Fahrenheit was considered balmy. As opposed to Guantanamo, which I believe is still located on a sun-kissed island in the Caribbean.
O.K., some of you are thinking, what’s the catch? Could just anybody sign up for a sweet deal like that? Actually, compared to Guantanamo it was a cinch to get into the old Soviet gulag. You didn’t have to be a would-be suicide bomber, or take up arms and shoot at American soldiers, or even actively plot terrorist attacks in faraway places like New York. All you had to do was say or write something against the Soviet government, or even be suspected of doing so. Sometimes just being an intellectual, like being a doctor or a professor, was enough to get you in. And if all else failed you could just get on the wrong side of some petty military bureaucrat like Solzhenitsyn did and it was goodbye, civilian life, hello gulag! Where, of course, you were not entitled to a trial, or a lawyer, or even to hear the charges against you until such time as your mock trial was scheduled.
Much has been written about real and alleged abuses in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. But by way of perspective, consider this: In the current war on terror coalition forces, mostly American, have liberated some 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of these 50 million newly liberated people, about 68,000 have been detained as possible enemy combatants, terrorists, or both. Of these 68,000 detainees, (many of whom were trained to claim that they were tortured after being released), about 325 have formally claimed some degree of abuse. Each of the claims is being investigated, and 100 people found guilty have been punished. We know that a certain number of detainees have died during their captivity, at least some of them at the hands of American forces.
Comparing even the reprehensible criminal acts of abuse during the current war to the breadth and depth of the decades-long horrors of the Soviet gulag is, frankly, an obscenity. And not just because of the sheer number of respective abuses or their relative severity, either. The abuses in question now were initially uncovered as the result of internal military investigations that were under way long before the Abu Ghraib photos were publicly disseminated. Guilty parties have been charged, and punished, and further adjudicating is an ongoing process.
That’s as opposed to the gulag, whose practices were never made public in the U.S.S.R., much less investigated and adjudicated by the Kremlin. Why would they? That would be like Donald Trump launching a major investigation to find out why people were gambling in his casinos. In fact, any attempt at exposing the gulag’s horrors would land a typical Soviet citizen in–guess where?–the Gulag. Have you noticed any of President Bush’s critics at the New York Times or Air America Radio being shipped off to a prison camp lately? Me, neither, although the official explanation for Maureen Dowd’s current hiatus is still pending. In fact, the simple reality that we even know that abuses occurred at U.S.-run prison camps, and are vigorously investigating them, effectively disproves the “gulag” charge.
To date, according to the Pentagon, at least ten major probes have been launched into the current abuse allegations, and so far not a single one of them has found that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ever knew of or condoned so much as a single act of torture, much less ordered any of them. Compare this to the Soviet gulag, where decades of daily torture and forced labor under starvation conditions were official, explicit Soviet policy. Yet the administration’s critics insist that we still haven’t gotten to the bottom of things yet and that more studies are needed. What is this, global warming?
All of which is lost on the “new American gulag” crowd because they don’t really care about prisoner abuse. If they truly cared about the mistreatment of the incarcerated they would have demanded the liberation of Iraq long ago. And Afghanistan, and Cuba, and, if I understand the facts of the case, the Neverland Ranch. These Bush haters aren’t even focusing on the genuine outrage of the few cases in which detainees were genuinely tortured and even killed. No, most of their ire is over the embarrassment of few dozen prisoners by a handful of sick people at an understaffed military prison called Abu Ghraib. The same prison where Saddam’s surgeons practiced punitive amputations. Where men and children watched their wives and sisters and daughters being gang raped. Where tens of thousands were murdered, and then dumped into unmarked trenches. And on, and on, and on.
No, the real goal of these Bush haters is to delegitimize this war and this scandal is just another weapon in their feeble arsenal. They would have you believe that it was morally wrong-impeachable, even–to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq and perhaps trigger the democratization of an entire subcontinent because some terrorist prisoners may have been improperly (and unjustly–don’t get me wrong) treated during the chaos of a shooting war. Which is a bit like saying the United States was on the wrong side of World War II simply because Allied soldiers sometimes roughed up German POWs during questioning, or shot Japanese troops deep behind enemy lines because they had no means of securely detaining them (both of which happened). With this new report and its gratuitous use of the term “gulag,” Amnesty International has joined that shameful chorus who would reflexively condemn any initiative, even one to liberate an entire region of the world, rather than give George W. Bush credit for doing something good. As anyone familiar with history and warfare knows, Amnesty International’s characterization of the U.S. prisons as being a “the gulag of our time” are more than just obscene. They are, as President Bush recently noted, absurd.