THE BLOG
05/05/2008 02:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Harold and Kumar Escape from Abu Ghraib

Well, it's been a few months and we're still waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court in the Guantánamo detainee cases. But things are happening on other fronts. For starters, the Harold and Kumar movie -- Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay -- is out. Here's my two cents on it, from The Nation:

As you might expect, the news media have approached us for comment on whether the film portrays the issues accurately, whether it will advance public debate and so forth. That is quite a lot to expect from a film series that is essentially a Cheech and Chong franchise starring Asian-Americans -- although the sequel very cleverly subverts and exceeds expectations as political commentary. But, as with most works of popular culture, the way the film is marketed says more about America than the screenplay. ...

To begin with, the reference works as a joke only because the vast majority of people now see Guantánamo as so illegitimate that it approaches absurdity. The man held for five years because of his friendship with a "suicide bomber" (who was alive and well in Germany); the Bosnian Red Crescent worker asked to respond to charges that he "associated" with a "known Al Qaeda member" (without being told that person's name--because it was classified); the government lawyer who claimed in court that a little old lady in Switzerland whose charitable donation is unknowingly diverted to Al Qaeda could be detained as an "enemy combatant" -- all of these may one day make the unwieldy "Guantanámoesque" replace "Kafkaesque" in the lexicon. The movie's marketers would never have risked alienating a significant chunk of their audience by putting the word Guantánamo in the title if there weren't a broad public consensus that the place is synonymous with injustice.

But the use of the prison as a metaphor for legalistic absurdity and government incompetence is only a small piece of the reality at Guantánamo. And this is the really telling thing about the title: America is not ready for Harold and Kumar Go to Abu Ghraib. Guantánamo can be treated as a punch line in part because it is seen by Americans as primarily an abstract issue about executive abuse of power instead of being about real people. This is partly because American citizens haven't (with one obscure exception) been held in Guantánamo, so no one was ever released and returned home to give firsthand accounts of their horrific abuse there to the public -- which did happen in Britain, Germany and Canada.

Meanwhile, more Orwellian explanations of abuse are coming from the government. This weekend, the most famous (internationally, not here) of all Gtmo detainees -- Sami al Hajj, a cameraman for Al Jazeera singled out of a news team and detained six years ago in Pakistan -- was released to his home country of Sudan. The government claims that Sami was faking his frailty when he was carried off the transport plane in Khartoum:

Video footage of a just-released Guantanamo detainee, unable to walk and grimacing in pain as he is loaded off a U.S. military plane in Sudan, didn't sit too well with Pentagon officials who say Sami al-Hajj appeared healthy and good-natured as he boarded the plane to leave Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. ...

"He's a manipulator and a propagandist," said one of the three Defense Department officials who spoke to ABC News. One of the officials talked about al-Hajj's "constant drumbeat of allegations" about the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, which had apparently become an irritant to his military handlers. One of the officials said that his credibility was called into question because there was "no information to substantiate his allegations that he was mistreated at Guantanamo."

Keep in mind this was a man on hunger strike (and being force fed) for over a year. He was released two days before international press Freedom Day, which surely had nothing to do with the timing of the release (unless that was more masterful manipulation by Sami).

According to his lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith (excellent video here), Al Hajj was interrogated roughly 130 times at Guantanamo, and roughly 125 of those interviews focused "solely on al Jazeera and on a few named al Jazeera employees, and the Americans want Sami to say that Al Jazeera is funded by al Qaeda, that they get money from Al Qaeda to publicize things on television." Of course, according to the administration, even a coerced admission of that sort from a detainee would be enough to make the entire network a den of "enemy combatants," guilty of providing "material support" to Al Qaeda and therefore subject both to trial by military commission and summary obliteration on the battlefield (as happened with the network's Kabul bureau).

Finally, this morning Peter Ryan, habeas counsel for several Afghan detainees, offers a modest proposal in the Philadelphia Inquirer in answer to the question "What to do with Guantanamo?":

The Supreme Court is mulling the question. The president and the secretary of defense say they want to close Guantanamo. All three presidential candidates and five former U.S. secretaries of state want to close Guantanamo.

Fortunately, the answer is obvious. Congress should pass, and the president sign, legislation making Guantanamo the 51st state. ...

Guantanamo is the model solution to the immigration dilemma. It has a big fence around it. The guys on the other side shoot anyone who tries to climb over. ...

Before 2004, the government insisted the detainees had no rights. With statehood, everyone will agree that the right to habeas corpus exists at Guantanamo. This will delight the Supreme Court, which won't have to decide the question.

Consider Haji Nusrat, internee serial number 1009. An 80-year-old stroke victim, he wobbled around Guantanamo with a walker for four years. He spoke in riddles, like "How could I be an enemy combatant if I was not able to stand up?" I never heard him say that he wanted to destroy our way of life. I think he just wanted our way of life. Or at least one of our rehab centers.

From the Sami al Hajj coverage we can guess that the government thinks that this octogenarian too is a "manipulator and a propagandist."