Last week, I did a little blogpost about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held hostage by Hamas for four years now. Ehud Barak, the defense minister of Israel, had made a pointed comment to Robert Gates, the U.S. defense chief: “A million and a half people are living in Gaza, but only one of them is really in need of humanitarian aid.” He meant Shalit, of course. The soldier is assumed alive, but has not been seen by the civilized world.
In that post, I said, “Hamas does not permit the Red Cross to see Shalit, of course. Neither does the Cuban dictatorship or Chinese dictatorship permit the Red Cross to see prisoners. May I remind you that the Red Cross visited inmates in Nazi concentration camps? One was Carl von Ossietzky, the pacifist journalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1935. And may I remind you that Red Cross representatives were regular companions of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island?”
I concluded, “If Gilad Shalit were other than Israeli, there’d be mass demonstrations in his behalf all over Europe, and on American streets, too. But . . .”
But he is. Is Israeli. And that makes a great deal of difference in the world.
After I wrote that post, I got a stream of e-mails from people on the left, attacking me in the most venomous and obscene terms. I’ll translate what they wrote into ordinary, temperate English: “The United States refused to let the Red Cross see terror detainees. Aren’t you a hypocrite? Isn’t the United States as bad as Hamas, the Cuban dictatorship, the Chinese dictatorship, and so on?”
No. The United States has captured about 100,000 terror suspects, probably more. It has had fewer than a hundred terrorists in the “CIA program” — in CIA detention, at “black sites.” These were “high-value detainees,” being interrogated for what they knew. Why? Because the terrorists had promised to attack Americans again and again, just as they had on 9/11. Those attacks were not a one-time deal, they said; they were no anomaly. The jihad was going to hit us again and again, as often as it could.
Remember when Americans were screaming at the Bush administration to “connect the dots”? And saying that the administration had failed to connect these dots? Well, that’s what the United States was trying to do in those interrogations: connect the dots. (And we did: The information we obtained prevented and foiled attacks.)
We certainly did not allow the Red Cross in — not while those terrorists were being interrogated, not at black sites. The public didn’t know about those sites. We (the U.S.) did not want the terrorists to reveal what we had learned, and what we were doing. We didn’t want them to communicate to the outside — we had (further) mass murder to prevent. We did not want the terrorists to use the Red Cross, or anyone else, as a megaphone — which, of course, is exactly what they did later.
When those detainees were transferred from the “CIA program” to more regular facilities, the Red Cross had access to them. And those detainees include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The Red Cross has the run of Guantanamo Bay, long has.
Michael Mukasey was attorney general from November 2007 to January 2009. He remembers visiting Guantanamo Bay in February 2008. He looked at many of the high-value detainees on video monitors. But he did not see Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; Mohammed wasn’t in his cell. He was off having a Red Cross visit.
Mukasey did see the exercise room, adjacent to Mohammed’s cell. And he noticed something interesting: Mohammed had the same elliptical machine that he, the attorney general, had back home in his Washington apartment building. Only there was this difference: Mukasey had to share his, with other residents; there was a mad scramble in the morning to get to it. Mohammed had his machine all to himself.
Bear in mind that he was the “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks, which killed almost 3,000 people. That he was the beheader of Daniel Pearl. And so on. I wonder how much more tenderly America’s critics expect us to treat such people. “Abdominal massages,” of the type Al Gore apparently requests?
This is to say nothing of the fact that these terror detainees are not uniformed soldiers, have refused to obey the laws and customs of war, and are not entitled to Geneva Convention protection. The United States decided to treat these detainees as though they were ordinary POWs. The fact remains, however, that they are not. When you blow up the World Trade Center, when you slit stewardesses’ throats with boxcutters, you are outside the pale.
‐Go back to that blogpost I did, and the anger that it elicited on the left. I was talking about Gilad Shalit, a corporal in uniform. And prisoners of conscience such as those held in Cuba and China: democrats, peace campaigners, intellectuals, artists, religious people, dissenters, and so on. People such as Oscar Biscet and Juan Carlos Herrera, Gao Zhisheng and Liu Xiaobo. What kinship do those men have with the terrorists at Guantanamo Bay — who blow up and behead innocent people? What? And how is the United States like Hamas, the Castro dictatorship, the PRC, etc.? How?
Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, “America is not what’s wrong with the world.” We can broaden that to, “The liberal democracies are not what’s wrong with the world.” You know what’s wrong with the world? Terror groups, dictatorships, totalitarian regimes, and the like. And yet so many people, and organizations, like to concentrate their fire on liberal democracies. This is a sickness. And it’s one that many people in unfree countries are sick over. (You should hear some of the Chinese I talk to.)
Reading some of the reaction to my blogpost, I was reminded why I left the Left, many years ago. Happened sometime during college. I was getting curious about the world: wondering about the Soviet Gulag, for example, and the boat people from Vietnam. I would try to raise those issues with those around me. I was immediately suspect as a fascist: “But what about capital punishment here in America? The death penalty, man. What about Agent Orange, man, and My Lai?”
Okay, okay, we could talk about those — we talked about them constantly. But couldn’t we talk about the Gulag and the boat people a bit, too? No, we couldn’t: because the United States was so sinful, we had to run it down full-time. We had no right to criticize other countries. (This did not apply, strangely, to South Africa, Chile, the Philippines . . .)
Some readers may recall a common line from the Soviet Union in the first years of the Cold War: “But what about the Negroes in the South?” That tended to shut down all conversation.
I don’t know about you, but I find it very hard to talk to people who, when you mention the extreme cruelty of Hamas, the Castros, and so on, go right to the United States and its own offenses, real or imagined. Very hard. We simply live on different moral planets.
I guess I spend most of my time, as a journalist, criticizing or bemoaning the United States. I have a complaint a second, it seems: our litigiousness, our racial screwiness, our political correctness, our violence, the grotesque nature of our popular culture. But, you know? The liberal democracies, including the United States, aren’t what’s wrong with the world.
‐Regular readers may remember a journal I did from Iraq, two years ago. May I quote a relevant portion now? Just give it a scan, if you feel like it:
Our group makes its way to Camp Cropper, to tour a detention center. Must be a hellhole, huh? A nightmare of torture and depravity. Not really. The people who are detained here are very, very lucky detainees indeed — very, very lucky jihadists, or former jihadists.
They have the best medical care, the best nutrition — professionals in white coats looking after them. Diabetes seems to be a problem, and that is treated.
An assortment of classes is held. The detainees learn “life skills.” As the general in charge, Robert Kenyon, says, “Everyone gets a skill set” — they’ll need it on the outside. There are “Islamic discussion” sessions, too.
For some of these people, getting detained is the best break they ever had. They’re not hardcore al-Qaeda: They were in the wrong place, or did a job for money, or were a little screwed up (or a lot). Some detainees don’t want to leave, and, in fact, fear doing so. Some mothers say: “Won’t you keep my son for longer?”
Camp Cropper is very, very different from being captured by al-Qaeda — very different indeed. And the coalition makes a point of telling the detainees so.
When they leave, they get to choose Western or Arab clothing. And they get $25 to put in their pocket. They also have the instruction and care they received.
I think — for the thousandth time during this trip — has there ever been so benign a major power as the United States? Some people would regard that as naïve. I regard them as confused.
About 25 prisoners come in a day, and about 50 are released. Recidivism, we’re told, is very, very low.
Foreigners — non-Iraqis — have their own zone. They are dangerous; they are hardcore al-Qaeda. General Kenyon hopes that they never again see the light of day — that the Iraqis, to whom they’ll be handed over, will keep them locked up. These are not the type to reform, or so it seems.
And they keep themselves in shape — in vicious fighting shape. For example, they’ll sprint around the yard, in the hottest, most hellish weather.
All prisoners have prayer rugs, Korans — the whole nine yards. No Westerner in the place touches a Koran, “out of respect.” One of our band — a fellow journo — says that this swallows the Wahhabist view of Islam and its rules. In any case, the coalition is very, very careful.
There are regular family visits — the detainees see their families. One of the American soldiers says, “That’s more than we get to do.”
There are art classes, and we see what the students — students! — have produced. Some paintings are very nice. An officer tells us that the detainees tend to start off painting guns and the like. Gradually, the paintings get less violent and bleak, and more beautiful. A civilizing effect is seen.
One of the art instructors is a former detainee — a former detainee now on the camp’s payroll. Imagine that.
There are sewing classes too, and the instructor shows us what he calls “the graduation piece” — a camel, known as the Cropper Camel.
I ask again: Has there ever — ever — been a power so benign? What’s al-Qaeda’s equivalent of the Cropper Camel for their detainees — if they had detainees? . . .
We tour the camp’s hospital, which is spick-and-span, and state-of-the-art — all the amenities at hand. I can’t help thinking of a point that the dreadful Michael Moore makes: Detainees such as those in Guantanamo get much, much better medical care than many ordinary Americans. True, true.
Of course, you are responsible for those you capture and hold, if you’re civilized. . . .
I wish Americans, and everyone else, could see the detention center at Camp Cropper — see what Americans and others are doing for those who, after all, were trying to kill them. Would it make any difference?
With some people, I’m afraid it would make no difference. With my venom-spewing e-mailers? I can’t help doubting.
‐The Red Cross has not been allowed in to see Corporal Shalit. A lot of us think that it hasn’t tried very hard — that, if it made a great, worldwide fuss, it would get results. The Red Cross can’t find out where Shalit is? Can’t tell his family or his government where he is? Really? The ICRC — the International Committee of the Red Cross — was made for cases like this. Read the history, from Dunant on, and you’ll see that this is so.
For a long time, the ICRC has had an Israel problem. (Hard to name a big international organization that hasn’t.) I studied this in detail at one time. For many, many years, there was just one Red Cross society that was kept out of the international movement — no prizes for guessing whose.
Israel’s Red Cross, the Magen David Adom, or the Red Star of David, was formed in 1930 (almost two decades before statehood). But the international movement refused to admit this group. It had a million Red Crescent societies, but could not countenance Israel’s. The United States, to its everlasting credit, decided to do something about this.
In 1991, the president of the American Red Cross, Dr. Bernadine Healy, gave a speech in Geneva appealing for the inclusion of the Red Star of David. Notoriously, the president of the ICRC, a man named Cornelio Sommaruga, asked whether, if the Star of David was acceptable, she was prepared to accept the swastika too.
That’s what I’m talking about. Very ICRC. Very European, in fact.
In a righteous application of pressure — the Americans really showed cojones — the American Red Cross started to withhold dues from the International Federation. That was in 2000. Finally, in 2006, the ICRC found a way to let the Israelis in. And the Americans paid accumulated dues, totaling $45 million.
Like many other international organizations — I’ll get to Amnesty International in a minute — the ICRC has an America problem, in addition to an Israel problem. One Red Cross-watcher told me recently, “The ICRC leaks reports against the United States. Funny, but you never see them leaking against, say, North Korea, do you?” No, not really.
And the American taxpayer is a handsome funder of the ICRC: We contribute between a quarter and a third of the organization’s budget. I, for one, would not weep if we taxpayers rethought that. What if Gilad Shalit were an American corporal? Do you think the ICRC would try a little harder, given all we pay? I just don’t know. I know that Israel doesn’t have much financial leverage. And I know that the Red Cross is not the neutral collection of saints many would like to think it is — and which it once was, long ago. (Very long ago.)
(Have a quick trivial fact: The Red Cross is the only organization to have won three Nobel Peace Prizes. They’ve won four, if you count the prize given to their founder, Dunant. That was in the very first year of the Noble prizes, 1901.)
‐Amnesty International does what everyone else does: attacks liberal democracies, open societies. It’s so easy. And no harm comes to you! But why bother, when there are so many closed societies to worry about, help, and pry open?
Amnesty had a beautiful beginning. It’s a famous story, and I’ll recount it briefly. A British lawyer named Peter Benenson was riding on a train in London. This was in 1960. He read that two Portuguese students had been thrown in jail, for toasting freedom. Benenson decided he should do something about it: and the Appeal for Amnesty was born.
Its reason for being was to help prisoners of conscience — indeed, “prisoner of conscience” was an Amnesty coinage. Prisoners of conscience are those tossed in jail merely for expressing what they believe, or for harboring beliefs uncongenial to the ruling authorities. Prisoners of conscience are different from, for example, armed revolutionaries. They are certainly different from terrorists — from the beheading elliptical-machine users in Guantanamo Bay.
Do you know that our founder, Bill Buckley — our Dunant! — was on the board of Amnesty International USA? He was, for about ten years. But he left — this was in 1978 — because of what Amnesty had become.
What had it become? Well, it declared a pox on all our houses: you know, dictatorships, liberal democracies, whatever. It would release reports on the Soviet Gulag; and then on American prisons. And it would condemn both countries in equal tones. They were “moral equivalence” all the way. And that’s not what WFB signed up for.
Today, you’re as likely to find an Amnesty report against the use of Tasers by American police as you are to find a report against North Korean concentration camps. And Amnesty loves to savage Israel as well. The U.N. spirit lives within that organization, and that is a foul spirit indeed.
You may remember a foul incident from 2005: Amnesty’s secretary-general, Irene Khan, called Guantanamo Bay the “gulag of our times.” Bear in mind, we have real, actual gulags: in the Castros’ realm, in China, in North Korea. But, according to Amnesty, Gitmo is the “gulag of our times.” What are real gulags, then? Maybe not of “our times,” who knows?
Here is a further detail — something else to turn your stomach. We heard about this in an article by Pavel Litvinov, published in the Washington Post. He had been a resident of the Soviet Gulag. And here’s a fact for you: His grandfather, Maxim Litvinov, was one of Stalin’s foreign ministers. In any case, Pavel wrote,
Several days ago I received a telephone call from an old friend who is a longtime Amnesty International staffer. He asked me whether I, as a former Soviet “prisoner of conscience” adopted by Amnesty, would support the statement by Amnesty’s executive director, Irene Khan, that the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba is the “gulag of our time.”
“Don’t you think that there’s an enormous difference?” I asked him.
“Sure,” he said, “but after all, it attracts attention to the problem of Guantanamo detainees.”
Flash forward to this year, when Amnesty linked arms with a man named Moazzam Begg, a British Islamist — a former Gitmo prisoner who had trained in al-Qaeda camps (Afghanistan). His shtick is to say that terror detainees are, in reality, human-rights victims.
That was too much for one Amnesty official, Gita Sahgal, who headed the “gender unit” (responsible for women’s rights). (Sahgal is a grand-niece of Nehru, incidentally.) In an internal memo, she wrote that the alliance between Amnesty and Begg “fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights. To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human-rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.”
And so on. Amnesty suspended Sahgal, because she went public with her criticisms; eventually, she and the organization parted ways altogether. Before she went, Salman Rushdie issued a statement in her behalf (and we can agree that he knows something about Islamism). He wrote,
“Amnesty International has done its reputation incalculable damage by allying itself with Moazzam Begg and his group Cageprisoners, and holding them up as human rights advocates. It looks very much as if Amnesty’s leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong.”
‐Too many people are suffering from moral bankruptcy, and cannot distinguish right from wrong. That number includes the people who pump poison into my inbox. But before I get (back) to them — how about one of Amnesty’s sister organizations, Human Rights Watch?
They go fundraising in Saudi Arabia, which is a perfectly natural thing for them to do. Why? Isn’t Saudi Arabia a nightmare for human rights? And isn’t the organization called “Human Rights Watch”? Yeah, yeah, but HRW makes a specialty of demonizing Israel. And a lot of Saudis like that — so they open their wallets for HRW. Simple.
Israel is a democracy fighting for its life, against those with no respect for democracy, human rights, or decency at all. But this means cruelly little to many people: including some who work for exalted organizations.
Okay, back to my e-mailers, just for a second. I don’t want to whine too much — more than I already have. All of us who write on the Internet get hostile mail, and we know it comes with the territory. But these items were really, really bad. I had lamented the treatment and neglect of Corporal Shalit and of prisoners of conscience. And one guy — I think guy — wrote, “Quit murdering Palestinians, scumbag.” That is not an atypical e-mail, I promise you.
And you know who’s very good at murdering Palestinians? Hamas, Fatah, and other Palestinians who lord it over the people. When Hamas is tossing people off rooftops, where is the “world community”? Blasting Israel and America — the “Little Satan” and the “Great Satan” — that’s where.
It wasn’t hard to figure out why I was getting these e-mails. The e-mailers weren’t reading National Review Online, of course. Left-wing bloggers had attacked my Shalit post in their usual vitriolic and personal terms; their readers were taking the ball from there. And, in their style, they were essentially aping the bloggers they admire.
‐Back to my college days, one last time, please — and to the matter of why I left the Left. I concluded that I was on a side: on the side of the United States, of liberal democracy, of man (if you will pardon the grandiosity). I was not a neutralist. I was not a pox-on-both-your-houses guy. I was not a moral-equivalence guy. I knew that the United States and the West weren’t perfect, heaven knows. But I also knew that we weren’t what ailed the world — that we were, on balance, a force for good.
This was a less common view than you might expect — in my environment, at that time.
Recently, I was talking to a composer friend of mine, who made a journey from left to right (as I did, but later in his life). I asked him how it happened. He said he had gone to West Berlin in the 1980s, to study. And the people around him — West German lefties — said, “You know, there’s really no difference between our side and their side. It’s all the same, really. We’re no better than they are.”
But my friend had eyes to see — and he could see that it wasn’t true. He saw, starkly, the difference between a free and open society, and an unfree and closed one. That made all the difference.
I had eyes to see, too. There was a big, big difference between the democratic world and the anti-democratic world. The people around me weren’t Communists; they didn’t carry around copies of Das Kapital (some of them did); they didn’t believe in the “withering away of the state” and all that jazz. They just thought that America was just as bad as anyone else — and that, therefore, we had “no right to talk.” I disagreed.
To repeat what many of my fellow righties have said, there is no way — no way — that America’s enemies can defeat America. Only Americans can do that. How do you lose? For one thing, you lose moral reason. And here is one way of knowing if you’re having trouble in the moral-reason department: When you hear about Hamas — about something awful it has done — is your instinct to hate and condemn George Bush? The Patriot Act? Gitmo? That instinct is a crazy one. And destructive.
Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for this long, long Impromptus — also for the sheer basicness of it. The A-B-C-ness of it. The sun rises in the east, and liberal democracies aren’t what’s wrong with the world. But sometimes it’s good to review the basics.