Let them read the documents. Let them try to tell us after that (as some still do, even now) that the Afghan War was fought well, and fought morally; that Guantanamo was a limited and necessary evil; that there was nothing that amounted to torture; that the prisoners stolen from across the world were almost all fanatics and that it was necessary for democratic states to excuse themselves from the rule of law in order to save it.
“If you could only know what we can know, you would understand that what we are doing is right,” our leaders used to assure us.
Well now we really do know — we have the documents, we have the transcripts of interviews with former prisoners, we have everything it takes to understand the nasty story of Guantanamo, exposed in 759 leaked documents containing the words of the people who ran the place. And it is obvious that we should have seen through the evasions from the start.
The leaked files published by the Guardian and the New York Times reveal horror that lies only partly in the physical things that were done to inmates — the desperate brutality of heated isolation cells, restraining straps and forced interrogation. Such things are already grimly familiar and have been widely condemned, and perhaps for the 172 inmates who remain in Camp Delta despite US President Barack Obama’s promise to close it, they continue in some lesser form. Worse things have been done in war, not least by the British, as emerging evidence from the campaign against the Mau Mau in Kenya should remind us.
However, what is given new prominence by these latest Guantanamo files is the cold, incompetent stupidity of the system: A system that tangled up the old and the young, the sick and the innocent. A system in which to say you were not a terrorist might be taken as evidence of your cunning. A system designed less to hand out justice than to process and supply information from inmates, as if they were not humans, but items of digital data in some demented storage machine programmed always to reject the answer: “No, I was not involved.”
The clinical idiocy of this dreadful place is the most chilling thing of all, since it strips away even the cynical but persuasive defense: It was harsh, but it worked and it kept the world safe.
It didn’t work, much of the time. These files show that some of the information collected was garbage and that many of those held knew nothing that could be of use to the people demanding answers from them. Far from securing the fight against terror, the people running the camp faced an absurdist battle to educate a 14-year-old peasant boy kidnapped by an Afghan tribe and treat the dementia, depression and osteoarthritis of an 89-year-old man caught up in a raid on his son’s house.
Other cases are just as pathetic. Jamal al-Harith, born Ronald Fiddler in Manchester in 1966, was imprisoned by the Taliban as a possible spy, after being found wandering through Afghanistan as a Muslim convert. In a movement of Kafkaesque horror the Americans held him in Camp X-Ray simply because he had been a prisoner of its enemy.
“He was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics,” the files record.
Again and again, what stands out from these stories is not some as yet undiscovered horror from the secretive steel-barred and orange-suited compound, but the chaos, the confusion and the casualness of it all. The people who ran this place were not deceived. They too could see that this was not the distillation of evil that the US government claimed it to be, but a shambolic catch from a trawl whose nets had dragged in all sorts of people, many of them by mistake.