The following is an editorial by Ned Berke, editor and publisher of Sheepshead Bites.
To hear Republican City Council candidate David Storobin tell it, the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp is little more than a guarded country club, complete with international television programming, an expansive library, educational opportunities, and beachfront soccer tournaments, and the only thing worth complaining about is small basketball courts and the variety of dried fruit that comes in your cereal.
The candidate shared his experiences during a guided tour of the facility during a recent visit in an op-ed in The Yeshiva World News, concluding that it “isn’t the hell the media claims” and that liberals have failed to take into account that prisoners are gaining weight at the facility.
“Is this satire?” one Sheepshead Bites reader asked after reading the article.
Nope. Just a shameful ploy to recruit conservative votes by setting up liberal straw-men, and knocking them down with anecdotal accounts extrapolated to universal truths in a grand display of oversimplification.
We can’t blame our reader for thinking it a joke, though. It makes The Onion read like The Economist.
Let’s dive in.
Storobin was on a visit after being selected as an observer of an inmate military commission hearing, which Storobin dubs a “trial” even though it resembles little what Americans are familiar with in the courtroom. From the start of the op-ed, he fawns over the video and book library, the training in English as a Second Language and resume writing, and its enviable location next to the beach.
“The jails were right next to the beach and the only thing separating the soccer field from the sand was a fence,” he wrote.
My goodness. What’s rent like?
Inmates got to watch TV in English, Arabic, Persian and Russian. “Why Russian?” I wondered. “I think there are a couple Chechens,” answered our guide. “Not sure if they are still here, but we have Russian TV just in case. We couldn’t find any channels in the Chechen language, so we figured they can understand Russian.”
“Some human rights activists must be thinking, ‘poor terrorists, they can’t even watch TV in the Chechen language,’” I thought.
The chief prosecutor apologized for the fact that the basketball court was only half-sized. Another “horrific abuse” took place when I was there – an inmate put in a complaint that he doesn’t like cereal with dried strawberries. Is that the reason China, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela feel compelled to criticize GITMO? I can assure you that no prisoner in those nations gets cereal with dried fruit.
That’s probably true. Please, human rights activists, stop paying attention to Guantanamo, and instead send dried fruit to Chinese prisons.
Actually, this is an ongoing theme in Storobin’s op-ed, comparing the conditions at Guantanamo to those of nations with horrific human rights abuses, as if the measure of American benevolence is not in our adherence to our highest ideals, but in how far we can compromise those ideals and still be better than the worst.
We were also allowed to observe inmates go about their day through a one-way mirror. A real prison takes a toll on people. Guantanamo inmates did not look the way those in a maximum security prison usually look. It was reported a few years ago that GITMO inmates gained weight while they were in prison, hardly something that happens to inmates in all those nations that criticize the United States. Maybe it’s because the basketball court is only half-sized and they can’t run as much as they want to…
Unfortunately, the reports about weight gains were bunk, according to a study by Seton Hall University Center for Policy & Research, and has been spread by GOP representatives and the Department of Defense’s news service to defend conditions at the base over the years.
But that kind of data point gets lost in the mix, as does all kind of data. In fact, data isn’t really a consideration for Storobin. It’s just an obstacle in the way of his observations during an escorted, orchestrated tour of facilities.
That’s not what really concerns me about the op-ed. What gets to me is the seething hatred Storobin shows for those he dubs “liberals,” and paints with a brush broader than the Grand Canyon.
Just check out this excerpt, where he seems barely able to restrain himself from blurting “libtard”:
A journalist from Italy was one of the few non-liberals in our group. He was older than the rest of us and what he was saying was not based on an ideology meant to boost self-esteem with the idea that having the proper opinion, whether accurate or not, makes one superior to everyone who disagrees. “I was in the Russian jail for Chechen terrorists,” he said to me during one of our discussions out of the ear-shot of the liberals. If we were friendly and kept our thoughts to ourselves, we’d be presumed to have proper opinions because what friendly person can disagree with left-wing ideologues?
I get it. He’s Republican, liberals are often Democrats, and this is politics, so why not diss them when you can? Sure.
But why create straw men out of them? Storobin sums up “liberal” outrage at the facility by saying it’s all about the physical abuse of prisoners and poor conditions of the prison, a fact refuted by what he saw before his very eyes. And he adds that concerns about legal rights are only tacked on in the face of such (anecdotal) evidence.
Faced with the evidence that Guantanamo isn’t the hell the media claims it to be, liberals say that terrorists cannot be held there because they have rights, but that is a way for them to change the conversation because the original argument has always been that GITMO is not humane, even for the worst of the world.
Of course, one of the big problems with Storobin’s anecdotes is the nature of his visit. Storobin can say things like “those who’ve visited Guantanamo know one thing: While it’s best to avoid jails, if you have to do time, nothing beats playing soccer on the beach” because he was on a guided tour with reporters, human rights activists and others in 2013.
I doubt his guide was quick to offer a tour of Camp 7 or Camp No, two classified black sites reported to be of the highest security and allegedly used for interrogation – which could include torture, as a Bush administration figure officially conceded has happened at Guantanamo.
And I doubt the guide was eager to talk about the number of admittedly innocent people that have been held there over the years; by May 2011, 600 prisoners had been released after years of imprisonment, most without having ever been charged. In fact, many were believed to be there because of a misguided program offering Pakistani and Afghani authorities a $5,000 bounty per prisoner, which left unsuspecting American taxpayers now caring for the political dissidents of other nations, and who may have never been a threat to American security. It was estimated in 2005 that that more than 80 percent of the prisoners at Guantanamo found themselves there via Pakistani and Afghani bounty hunters.
David Storobin visited Guantanamo Bay in 2013, after remarkable reforms at the facility have been put in place to curb physical and emotional abuse of prisoners, reduce the number of prisoners (and particularly those without credible suspicion of terrorism or insurgency), and expedite the prisoner review process. He saw a facility that has undergone many improvements thanks to the “liberals” and human rights activists he repeatedly mocks in his op-ed.
But as of June 2013, there still remain 164 inmates. Many of these truly are threats to our security and should remain detainees, while others were cleared for release years ago and remain in prison.
Now, the most downright alarming claim isn’t that the prison’s conditions are good, or that liberals are blowing it out of proportion, nor is it his unsubstantiated claim that liberals are only interested in “not humane” treatment of prisoners.
No, the most alarming aspect is that he conflates “liberal” with those who are concerned about “human rights,” and is confused by the notion that indefinite detainment and the suspension of habeas corpus (the right to a trial) constitutes abuse. Some of that might be his lack of familiarity with human rights activists due to his apparent allergy to them.
When human rights activists talk about torture, for example, they include in their definition indefinite detainment. And the right to habeas corpus is considered by the United Nations an international human right – an idea petitioned for and won 63 years ago by an American lawyer named Luis Kutner (although, admittedly, the international body makes no consistent attempt to enforce this right).
And why this alarms me is because Storobin is a lawyer. A criminal defense lawyer. And a criminal defense lawyer seeing nothing wrong with indefinite imprisonment without a trial is quite disconcerting.
Here’s the extremely admirable words of an American criminal defense lawyer explaining why he defends child predators:
People who commit crimes should be held accountable for their actions, and people who commit crimes against children should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. That said, this isn’t a totalitarian state where you’re accused and sent straight to jail …
Who wrote that? David Storobin during last year’s campaign.
And while he was talking about American citizens protected by the Constitution, there remains no logical explanation of why he now believes we can, indeed, detain someone indefinitely with merely an accusation, or continue to detain others who have been cleared of any risk to national security (as a handful of the 164 remaining inmates have been).
Human rights isn’t a liberal or conservative issue, and it’s very disappointing to hear a criminal defense lawyer running for elected office depict it as such.
But let me step back a moment and talk about what I think about Guantanamo Bay:
I don’t. I don’t think about Guantanamo Bay. I am a local news reporter and there are astoundingly complex issues of legality and morality in the manner with which we treat these prisoners that are far beyond my experience and judgement. You want to know who’s supposed to throw out the trash on Neck Road? I’m your man. You want to know whether or not detainees should be prosecuted under federal or military law, and whether or not “state secret status” is justifiable information on whether to keep a person detained indefinitely? Go ask a greater mind than mine.
And that’s what really bothers me about Storobin’s op-ed. As I am a local reporter and not a foreign legal analyst, Storobin is a local candidate for elected office – an office that has zero role to play in the proceedings and conditions at Guantanamo Bay – and not a foreign legal analyst.
And while he’s talking about Guantanamo Bay, in an inflammatory manner, he’s not talking about garbage. He’s not talking about safety. He’s not talking about quality of life for the approximately 160,000 people he hopes to serve.
There are exactly 28 days until the general election, when David Storobin and Chaim Deutsch will face off against each other, and we have heard shockingly little about Storobin’s stances on local issues (to be fair, Deutsch has been particularly quiet since the primary).
But while we might not know his thoughts on the quality of life for 160,000 potential constituents, at least we know where he stands on the quality of life for 164 detainees that are 1,342 mile away: He’s all for it.