Tuesday, August 21, 2007

We All Belong in Guantánamo

In Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel First Circle, an officer in Stalin's secret police, unsure which of four men have tipped off a dissident over the telephone, decides to arrest all on grounds that they've surely been disloyal at some point. I'm reminded of that logic upon learning of the publication of Poems from Guantánamo, an anthology written by current detainees.

Solzhenitsyn learned the NKVD officer's logic, of course, in Soviet prison, where he ended up for sending a joke about Stalin to a friend in a letter from the front during World War II.

The notion that unjust imprisonment can be fertile literary ground first came home to me one college summer afternoon while reading a slim volume of Ho Chi Minh's prison poetry. As my father passed by, he glanced at my book and proclaimed that prison was "an excellent school." He had been a political prisoner at about the same time as Solzhenitsyn, although his letters from prison have little more than personal value.

What strikes me now, however, is not the literature but the reality of the logic of being guilty unless proven innocent. As Solzhenitsyn's NKVD officer might have said, everyone is guilty of something.

While that might not be a good basis for a legal system, in philosophical terms the idea resonates in my bones as true. All of us have contravened what we believed were the rules of right and wrong, knowingly and willingly, at some point in our lives. Most likely many times.

The men in Guantánamo might not really be menaces to the United States -- certainly no court has found them so -- but they are not innocent and the best they could hope for from a court would be the verdict of "not guilty." Not guilty as charged.

That's not innocent of all wrongdoing. Maybe some cheated on their wives or girlfriends. Maybe some swindled someone. Maybe some were bullies in the schoolyard.

President Bush also belongs in Guantánamo by the logic that holds the detainees: name anyone who has greater power who has inflicted more death and torture during his term in office. Knowingly. We know he knows because the various dissembling masks have already peeled off.

Let's not get too righteous, however. All of us are also guilty, by thought, word, deed or inaction.

There used to be a prayer in the pre-1979 Book of Common Prayer that expressed the thought majestically: "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done: And there is no health in us."

Even newborn babies? Absolutely. There is hardly a creature more self-centered than a newborn human. Or child. Or adolescent. Or adult.

A very young child, of course, has developed neither the knowledge nor the will-power to make moral choices. To some extent, being self-centered is a matter of survival. Babies cry to be cared for. Children make demands to have some legitimate needs met.

Yet they also make illegitimate claims on our time and resources that will not further their survival. Indeed, if satisfied, indulged children will become lazy, willful and helpless adults. We all belong in some Guantánamo or another.

All of which brings me full circle to the literary.

It is said that Henry David Thoreau, when imprisoned as a tax dissenter during the Mexican-American War, was asked by a visitor what someone of his standing was doing in prison. Thoreau asked the visitor what he was doing outside.
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