Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22, in 1961, described a world in which government creates a living hell for people because of its arrogance and ineptness. Heller did not go to Guantanamo, but he imagined it almost 50 years ago.
This past week the catch-22 nature of the Guantanamo prison came into sharp focus because of a court decision on the fate of 17 men from western China who belong to a Muslim ethnic minority called the Uighurs. Reportedly at odds with the Chinese government, they face persecution and possible death if they return to China. Unfortunately, they chose Afghanistan as a destination around the same time the CIA was offering cold cash to anyone in Afghanistan with the ability to raise an index finger, point toward another living human, and pronounce the words: TALIBAN, or AL QAEDA.
These 17 men have spent the last seven years in Guantanamo prison. No formal charges against them. No lawyers until now. No real court hearing. They are Muslims, and they have a great animosity towards the Chinese government, but everyone – even the Bush administration – has said they are guilty of no crimes and pose no threat to the United States.
Why can’t they be let go? We cannot release them in the U.S., the D.C. Court of Appeals said, because they were captured abroad. This means that if you are captured with the label “enemy alien” (read terrorist), even if you have done no wrong, you cannot win your freedom by proving your innocence because the label itself places you outside the protection of our laws. Once called an enemy alien, you must always be an enemy alien. Catch-22.
This is the most explicit example of why Guantanamo must be closed, why the due process-deficient military commissions must be abandoned, and why all inmates at Guantanamo should either be charged and tried in our judicial system, or be released.
It is that simple. For those who continue to try to scare the country by conjuring up the worst attacks that could occur unless we hold people in prison without due process, I say, it is far scarier to live in a country in which the government treats some people outside the law.
We have heard the scare tactics for seven years running. At some point, we need to say enough, and start following the Constitution. Some of us thought we drew that point on November 4.
America is not America without its constitutional values of due process, the rule of law, and individual freedoms. It is kind of a reverse catch-22.