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The Worst of the Worst

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"This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization." -- George W. Bush, Sept. 11, 2006

Oh Lord, if only he meant it.

So many of us saw it five years ago -- in that fleeting eternity, as the towers slid to earth, taking with them unknown thousands of innocent souls. The merciless suddenness, the sheer irrationality, of their deaths released not just the hope but the conviction that this should never happen again. This was the spirit of 9/11, and it could have given birth to a struggle for civilization . . . for something different, a reorganization of national priorities, around compassion for every human on the planet.

Instead it gave us the precise opposite: two devastating wars, a strutting president in a flight suit -- and Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture memos, secret prisons in Eastern Europe, a fledgling national gulag.

Read the stories of our Gitmo detainees, the men that Bush administration officials call "the worst of the worst." Most of them, according to various independent investigations, aren't even enemy combatants. They're unlucky guys who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, arrested in random sweeps; turned in by countrymen for personal revenge or simply to collect bounty money; or, like 80-year-old Haji Nusra, punished for the crime of mouthing off:

Nusra, who lived in a small mountain village in Afghanistan, was partially paralyzed from a stroke and bedridden at the time of his arrest, according to one of the capsule bios in a report by the Center for Constitutional Rights called "Faces of Guantanamo: Guantanamo's Many Wrongly Imprisoned." "He is . . . unable to stand or walk unassisted. Despite his age and frailty, Mr. Nusrat was arrested after protesting the arrest of his son. . . . (He said he) believed he would die in Guantanamo, and he did not know whether or not his wife remained alive during the long years of his detention."

Or consider the case of Murat Kurnaz, a German resident of Turkish descent, who "was traveling through Pakistan with Islamic missionaries in November 2001 when he was pulled off a bus at a routine stop by local police and turned over to U.S. officials."

Kurnaz, who was released last month after almost five years of imprisonment, had been held on the false allegation that a friend of his was a suicide bomber. (The friend is still alive and living in Germany and was never under suspicion by the German government.) During Kurnaz's stay as a guest of the Bush administration, he told Amnesty International, he suffered waterboarding, electric shock and a mock execution; he was left shackled and handcuffed with his arms above his head for days at a time; he was sexually humiliated by a female guard as he lay shackled to the floor.

But that was then. Bush's struggle for civilization is now in cruise mode. For instance, the Pentagon's new Army Field Manual, which was under debate for more than a year, has just been released. It "specifically bans," according to the New York Times, "forcing a detainee to be naked or perform sexual acts; using beatings and other forms of causing pain, including electric shocks; . . . staging mock executions; withholding food, water or medical care; or using dogs against detainees."

Surely this is the vision we all had as the Towers collapsed -- a world where U.S. prisoners are not sexually humiliated, mauled by dogs or beaten to death. Sorta warms the heart.

Or maybe not.

"The worst abuse is being told they're there indefinitely -- there's no hope. That's what they're constantly told," said Chicago lawyer Pat Bronte, who is part of a team representing several Guantanamo detainees. "Most of the guys are young, in their 20s and early 30s," she said. "Some have wives and children. They all have families they haven't see in four and a half or five years."

Well, too bad. "As has been the case in previous wars, the country that takes prisoners generally decides that they would prefer them not to go back to the battlefield," Donald Rumsfeld said in 2002. "They detain those enemy combatants for the duration of the conflict." And this is a war without end.

"I also think about the young men and women who are guarding them," Bronte went on. "They're being trained to treat these guys like they're all responsible for 9/11. This is very corrupting and unfair to our young people, (telling them) it's OK to humiliate and degrade, ignore the Geneva Conventions. The effects of that will be with us for years to come."

Could things be more badly botched? Could the true spirit of 9/11 be more debased? For now, civilization itself is under lock and key at Guantanamo, and last week the president told members of Congress he hopes they can figure out a way to keep it there.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at