A Voice on a Paper Cup

by Belle Waring on April 24, 2005

No one who has read the Gulag Archipelago or Sinyavsky’s A Voice From the Chorus can possibly read these words without a pang to the heart:

“It was just a short poem,” Badr recalled. “Something about how in life everything is possible and we should be patient because freedom is close at hand.” But it was enough to swell his heart with hope. “I was suddenly so happy,” he said.

Dost had smuggled the note to [his brother] Badr through an ingenious ruse. Every few days, representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived with forms so prisoners could write brief letters home. They were given only 10 minutes, but that was enough to dash off other notes on hidden scraps of paper cups. Prisoners then passed the messages between wire pens on pulleys made of threads from their prayer caps….

Eventually, he said, the interrogators seemed convinced that he had not meant any serious harm. [he wrote a satirical piece in which he offered to match Clinton’s $5 million reward for bin Laden with his own 5 million afghani (US $115) price on Clinton’s head.] In February 2004, Dost said, he was transferred to another section of Guantanamo where he had access to as much paper as he wanted.

He continued to produce hundreds of poems, translated the Koran into Pashto and wrote a text on Islamic jurisprudence.

In the meantime, Dost said, he was taken before a review tribunal, a brief procedure that he described as a “show trial,” even though it ultimately resulted in his release. To date, U.S. military officials said, 232 Guantanamo detainees have been released and more than 500 remain in custody.

Often, Dost said, the guards conducted raids when officials suspected a detainee had issued a fatwa — an Islamic decree against them. Each time, all inmates’ writings were confiscated. Dost said he was assured that his work would be returned to him on his release.

But when that day finally came last week, Dost said, he received only a duffel bag with a blanket, a change of clothes and a few hundred papers — a fraction of his writings.

This parting blow, he said, struck him harder than all the humiliations of confinement. On Friday, as well-wishers swarmed into his home, he said his only thought was how to recover his work.

“If they give me back my writings, truly I will feel as though I was never imprisoned,” he said. “And if they don’t . . . “

Look, my country is better than this. Or this. Just. Stop.

I know I’ve related this before on my own blog, but my grandfather was an OSS spy in WWII. In one of the letters he sent home to my grandmother he describes how he met up with US ground troops who had just taken a French village controlled by a particularly awful German captain. He relates how his first impluse was to beat the shit out of the guy, knowing what he did about what the man had done. But he just gave him a cigarette instead. I don’t remember exactly what he said in the letter, but it was basically that the German was surprised at his mild reception, and my grandfather told him that was what happened when you were taken prisoner by Americans, and that we were better than them, better by a long shot. Anyone who thinks Osama bin Laden is more of a threat to the US than the Axis is welcome to come to East Hampton to get hit on the head with a lead pipe by my grandpa. He’s still pretty spry. Also, just stop.



Uncle Kvetch 04.24.05 at 9:15 am

Look, my country is better than this.

“Your country” (and mine) has ceased to exist. It has become something unrecognizable.

Excellent post.


brian 04.24.05 at 9:31 am

As he was being taken away by the secret police, I believe Isaac Babel’s words were:

“But they didn’t let me finish.”

Saddest words a writer can hear.


MrM 04.24.05 at 10:10 am

This is precisely the angle through which much of the world views this administration’s policy of “spreading democracy and defending freedom”


abb1 04.24.05 at 10:18 am

I’m not sure that going easy on a ‘particularly awful German captain’ (or hiring Klaus Barbie, for that matter) is exactly the opposite of keeping that Afghan poet in a concentration camp for 3 years for making a joke about Clinton.


abb1 04.24.05 at 10:33 am

Sorry, on the second thought – it is the opposite. But it might’ve been better to demonstrate a different pattern of treatment in the good old times of the same kind of person as this Dost guy, that’s what I meant.


y81 04.24.05 at 11:19 am

But after WWII was over, the German captain, if treated in accordance with normal practice, was interned for two years. If he was a war criminal, he was given a “show trial” and executed, for all I know. The plural of anecdote isn’t data.


Barry 04.24.05 at 11:37 am

Y81, your point is?


Jonathan Edelstein 04.24.05 at 11:45 am

Very well said.


Chris H 04.24.05 at 11:59 am

I don’t exactly see what the point of this post is. To reaffirm that there are problems with Guantanamo? Yes, we all know and believe that. But why should we “just.stop” defending what is good about America, when there are so many who would have the world view this country through the narrow funnel of posts like yours? I’m not going to “just.stop” as you plead with self-importance — I would rather comdemn America when it deserves it and praise it where it merits it.


Publius 04.24.05 at 1:28 pm

I think you’re missing the point. Can we get Rush Limbaugh sent to Gitmo for 300 years? He’s made at least 100 times as many jokes about Clinton.


albert 04.24.05 at 1:51 pm

“But why should we “just.stop” defending what is good about America”

I’m not finding where Belle says that. “Just. Stop.” refers to something else entirely.


Walt Pohl 04.24.05 at 2:02 pm

Seriously, Chris H., you are as dumb as a post. Dumb as the day is long. The kind of dumb you usually need be a pigeon to manage.


y81 04.24.05 at 3:15 pm

Barry, a claim is made by Belle that “my country is better than this”–what a lawyer would call an ultimate finding of fact. The basis for this claim, implicitly endorsed by uncle kvetch, is that the U.S. treated prisoners better in WWII than we do in the WOT. I am very skeptical of that claim, and point out that a story from Belle’s grandfather doesn’t really amount to an evidentiary basis. If, as I believe, we are treating prisoners about well as we always have, Belle’s claim, and uncle kvetch’s jeremiad, have no factual basis.


KCinDC 04.24.05 at 3:16 pm

What the hell post are you reading, Chris H? Belle *is* defending what’s good about America.


Barry 04.24.05 at 3:26 pm

Y81, we also know, of course, the history of WWII, and how prisoners were treated. Much, is known beyond Belle’s anecdote, which is more of an exmaple for illustration rather than a data point.


rd 04.24.05 at 3:50 pm

The point of the story seems off kilter to me. The real problem was how unconscionably long it took for the guy to get a serious hearing and then release from detention. The fact that his writings were confiscated and only some returned during his detention doesn’t strike me as among the more heinous human rights violations. Presumably an Al Quaeda suspect could write things it would be useful to know, so there’d be every reason to examine them. The fact that only a “few hundred pages” (!) were eventually returned doesn’t quite say “Gulag” to me. That and the absence of people being systematically worked to death and stuff.


Terry 04.24.05 at 5:04 pm

Since anecdotal evidence is enough to condemn the US in the GWOT, how about some from WW2?
“11:30 The American GIs in a frenzy or horror, anger and guilt gun down some 122 captured German soldiers – most of them Waffen SS. Dozens of inmates break out of the prison enclosure and kill approximately 40 guards, some with their bare hands. Private John Lee of I Company later told newspapers that he was personally involved in at least 60 of the killings.”
None of these Germans were given so much as a hearing. Maybe one of them was even a poet.


Steve Burton 04.24.05 at 5:20 pm

Early in 1998, Osama Bin Laden declared that Muslims should kill Americans, civilians included, wherever they can find them.

On August 7 of the same year, a pair of truck bombs exploded outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people.

President Clinton “retaliated” by, among other feeble measures, putting a price on Bin Laden’s head.

Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost responded with a satirical poetic attack, not on Bin Laden, but on Clinton – calling for a price to be placed on *his* head.

After 9-11, A Pakistani cleric fingered Dost as a terrorist supporter.

The U.S. imprisoned Dost in Guantanomo.

During the next couple of years, they provided him with rubber pencils and lots of paper, on which he scribbled his poems, a translation of the Koran, etc.

Eventually, they concluded that he was harmless. They released him.

They send along with him only “a fraction” of his poems.

He was heart-broken.

The Washington Post devoted three internet pages to his sad story.

All this puts Belle Waring in mind of *The Gulag Archipelago.*

Which makes me seriously wonder whether Belle Waring has ever cracked open a copy of *The Gulag Archipelago* or has any idea what is to found there.

I would like to think not.


Jason McCullough 04.24.05 at 6:26 pm

“Which makes me seriously wonder whether Belle Waring has ever cracked open a copy of The Gulag Archipelago or has any idea what is to found there.”

An innocent guy getting accused of a crime he didn’t commit? Just guessing.


Steve Burton 04.24.05 at 6:48 pm

jason mccullough: I am unaware of any system of justice that has ever existed in which “an innocent guy getting accused of a crime he didn’t commit” was at all unusual. If you think that justifies comparison to *The Gulag Archipelago*, then you are, indeed, “just guessing.”


burritoboy 04.24.05 at 6:57 pm

Steve Burton (and other human scum like rd, y81 and Chris H),

This guy spent nearly 3 years in prison for what can only be described as a thought crime against an ex-president of the United States. You don’t think this is like a gulag? Sure, Siberia was a harsher prison perse, but the overall outlines of the story are the same. That Cuba’s God-given weather is warmer than Siberia, and the American captors provided somewhat milder tortures (for the moment, anyway) doesn’t change much.

Fine, we’ll send you to Guantanamo Bay for three years without a trial and see how you enjoy it.

As publius properly notes, prominent Republican politicians (who are both actually a. Americans and b. have many political followers who have a reasonable chance of carrying out their wishes) repeatedly openly threatened President Clinton’s life. If anything, many of them were rewarded by greater government power and honors since 2001, much less not punished.

Ann Coulter has openly called for terrorism against other Americans. Not only was she not punished with a three-year stay in a Cuban jail, she is on the cover of Time Magazine. She has been a repeated speaker at many meetings of prominent Republican politicians and has repeated threats of terrorism at those very meetings.

Only tyrannical regimes destroy or hide writings which they have already admitted are harmless (the US already released Dost the person after a short hearing, so they’ve officially admitted he is not much of a threat, if any). Yet, why are his writings being withheld from him? I don’t mind if the US keeps copies of his writings, but why are they with-holding the writings themselves?

Y81 intentionally refuses to understand that the entire basis of why the US fought the Nazis is being urinated upon, every minute, by our government’s current tyrannical and obscene actions. Of course, the US punished Nazi war criminals after World War II. The critical difference is that they went to great lengths to figure out who was an actual war criminal, provided real trials with real appeals (not thirty-minute long fake show trials which wouldn’t even have passed muster under Stalin) with real defense counsel provided and did not torture the merely accused. Nazis whose main crime had been writing satirical poems about FDR or Hoover were hardly bothered (after all, the US had enough trouble getting their hands on people whose hands were literally dripping blood).

That’s the difference – the US was once a humane, civilized and law-abiding nation. And now it’s…..something else.


burritoboy 04.24.05 at 7:02 pm

The supporter of monsters and thugs, Steve Burton, apparently can’t tell the difference between a civilized system of justice, where the accused are not held in foreign jails for multiple years without trials for thought crimes and tortured versus uncivilized ones, like the Gulag and Guantanomo, which both did precisely those things.


Steve Burton 04.24.05 at 7:06 pm

burritoboy: you call me “human scum?”


Steve Burton 04.24.05 at 7:07 pm

burritoboy: you call me a “supporter of monsters and thugs?”


detached observer 04.24.05 at 7:22 pm

steve burton,

The man got sent to prison for writing a poem about Clinton. As an emigre from the former soviet union, I feel that a comparison with the Gulag Archipelago is quite apt.

Your response to this – essentially “but he was wrong to write the poem – osama is worse is clinton” – deserves no further reply.


Steve Burton 04.24.05 at 8:09 pm

detached observer: according to the Washington Post article to which Ms. Waring refers us, the man was imprisoned because of unspecified accusations made, post 9-11, by an unnamed cleric linked to the Pakistani government. The reader is given no reason to believe that these accusations related to his earlier anti-Clinton essay. So when you say that he “got sent to prison for writing a poem about Clinton” you are going way beyond any information that is available to me. Do you have other sources of information on this point?

And if that is all they arrested him for, then why did they release him when they concluded it was all he was guilty of?

Now imagine some guy in the Lubyanka c. 1935. He’s been accused by a minor Soviet functionary of being an anti-government agent. Among his papers they find a satirical essay calling for the death of Stalin.

How much would you wager on him coming out of it alive?

Would they provide him with pencil and paper? Would they let him send messages to people via the Red Cross? Would they let him go once they concluded that he was harmless?

Or would they, for example, bring in his family members and torture them slowly and bloodily in the next room while forcing him to listen until he implicated everyone he could think of in some anti-people conspiracy or other which they all knew perfectly well that he was inventing, after which he would either be shot on the spot or, if he was lucky, sent to Siberia to be worked to death?

I respect people’s qualms about American procedures in the “global war on terror.” But cheap comparisons to the Gulag just make those who indulge in them look morally frivolous.


Walt Pohl 04.24.05 at 8:45 pm

Steve, every single word you utter dishonors the United States of America. You would be better served to wipe your ass on the flag than type another word. Is this what America means to you? “Not as bad as Stalin”?

We imprisoned some guy for three years without trial on the words of some Pakistani cleric. (Am I really typing these words? “Pakistani cleric”? Who the fuck cares what some Pakistani cleric says?) As a proud member of the “mistakes were made” brigade, that’s good enough for you. But as people who believe that America means something, not for us.


burritoboy 04.24.05 at 8:48 pm

Steve Burton,

Yes, you are a supporter of monsters and thugs and that makes you human scum.

Let’s see, Dost was in a foreign prison where he was tortured for three years for:

a. being accused of unspecified and unknown charges (in fact, we still don’t know what they are) by an unknown accuser. What sort of regime does this sound like? He was not given a trial, and when the government did throw a show trial (three years later), the government essentially admitted they had no evidence that Dost had had any ties to terrorism whatsoever.

b. since whatever the charges actually were, they seem to be likely imaginary, the only thing we have to fall back upon as a solid charge is that Dost wrote a satirical poem about Bill Clinton. We do know that US interrogators questioned Dost about the poem for hours, so it was an item of at least some concern to them.

No one is saying Guantanamo is precisely like Stalin’s Siberia. But if you don’t see the parallels and see where the slippery slope is rapidly heading towards……we do (and I too am an emigre from the former Soviet Union). And, by the way, the US has arrested (captured?kidnapped?) entire families at once. Dost’s brother was also at Guantanamo. And, people have been killed at Abu Ghraib and mass murders have been rumored to have occurred in Afghanistan.


John Emerson 04.24.05 at 8:56 pm

Jeez, the trolls y’all get.


Steve Burton 04.24.05 at 9:26 pm

walt pohl, burritoboy: because I question the aptness of comparing Dost’s case to the sort of stuff that typically went on in the Gulag, you both start spitting obscenities and drawing wholly unwarranted conclusions about what I believe and who I support.

It is a good thing for Dost that his captors at Guantanomo were more interested in backing up charges with evidence than you guys seem to be.


detached observer 04.24.05 at 10:15 pm

steve burton,

…the man was imprisoned because of unspecified accusations made, post 9-11, by an unnamed cleric linked to the Pakistani government. The reader is given no reason to believe that these accusations related to his earlier anti-Clinton essay.

Its strongly implied. Anyway, one is hardly less atrocious than the other: the imprison a man on the grounds of mocking Clinton, or to imprison him based on nothing more than the word of a personal enemy. Its obvious from the article that the case against him was incredibly thin from the beginning.

Now imagine some guy in the Lubyanka c. 1935. He’s been accused by a minor Soviet functionary of being an anti-government agent. Among his papers they find a satirical essay calling for the death of Stalin.

How much would you wager on him coming out of it alive?

Not bad, in fact. My bet would be a sentence in a labor camp.

Ever heard of Osip Mandelshatam? A great poet who wrote a personally demeaning and satirical attack on Stalin in 1933 (“His fat fingers slimy as worms”); he was let go without punishment. Unfortunately, he was caught writing more of such stuff in the next few years, and was executed five years later.

As for the rest of your “arguments,” they are intellectually facile. You seem to interpret the comparison “X is like Y” to mean “X is like Y in every respect.”

Lets see: Stalin arrested people on flimsy accusations and shipped them off to Gulags where they were tortured.

The United States of America arrested this man on incredibly flimsy evidence, took him to Guantanamo where

…Americans sheared off their beards, forbade them to wash, shoved their faces into the dirt and screamed curses in their ears during frequent interrogations.

Certainly, Stalin tortured his victims far more, but if you don’t see parallels, you are blind.


Barry Freed 04.24.05 at 10:23 pm



Walt Pohl 04.24.05 at 10:35 pm

Steve, if you are actually upset by what happened to Dost (as you imply), then why are you arguing the position you are? If Belle was comparing after-school detention to the Gulag, then maybe you’d have a real point.


Terry 04.24.05 at 11:34 pm

This is crazy. If anyone thinks that the US is like the USSR during Stalinist Russia, your off your rocker. Look, I’ll prove it.
“George Bush is a big poopy head! His fat fingers are as slimy as worms!”

Ah, well. I’m off to Gitmo I guess. The best I can hope for is to be let go with a warning that if I don’t quit writing seditious words I’ll be executed in five years. Crookedtimber will be shutdown and anyone who admits to having read it will be sent to Gitmo as well.
Good luck, cellmates.


burritoboy 04.25.05 at 12:08 am


Your argument seems to be “if we aren’t as bad as Stalin yet, we’re A-OK.” The fact is, we seem to have imprisoned and tortured a poet for a combination of thought crimes and the hearsay of his personal enemies (his personal enemies in Pakistan, of all things).

You seem to take comfort in the fact that Dost is an “other” from us. Well, I’m not quite as comforted by the fact that Dost has brown skin and the unfortunate heritage of being a Moslem and an Afghan, and I don’t. I’m not so certain my white skin and Judeo-Christian religion and European nationality will continue to protect me infinitely. A regime that tortures poets (and, moreover, tortures poets for incredible trivialities) is not one I can so easily trust.


detached observer 04.25.05 at 12:23 am


Once again, the US is like the old USSR in some ways – as Dost’s story shamefully demonstrates. That does not mean that it is like the USSR in all or most ways.


Terry 04.25.05 at 12:52 am

Damn! Some unnmamed branch of the government has already found me. One of the citizens says he’s a fishmonger and the other says he’s a machinist, but they both carry pistols. They smell like NKVD to me. While they’re distracted (they’ve noticed a ‘No War’ bumper sticker on my neighbor’s car) let me tell you something that may save your life.
When I die from starvation and the beatings at Gitmo prop my body up against the wall. The guards may not notice I’m dead and you can share my bread ration. It worked in the gulag, It may work at Gitmo.

And Burritoboy, you’re attacking a strawman.

“detached observer”, every country in the world is like the USSR in some ways. No country in the world is like the old Soviet Union in “all ways” and probably all are like it in “most ways”, depending on what you think the defining characteristics of the Soviet Union were.
Sorry about ending that last sentence with a proposition.


detached observer 04.25.05 at 1:37 am

On the other hand, if you were to list the countries in the world that are like the USSR in that they throw people in jail and keep them there for years based on zero evidence, you would have a list that includes the United States. Which is what we around here were bemoaning, before you came in and told us we were off our rockers.


Walt Pohl 04.25.05 at 2:02 am

Terry, I’m not normally a praying man, but I hope to God that you are shipped off to Guantanamo on the basis of an anonymous tip, so that three years from now I can sanctimoniously explain how we’re not as bad as the Soviet Union under Stalin. Please God, just this once…


abb1 04.25.05 at 2:22 am

In the interest of truth and fairness I have to add that in the Soviet Union they would never send anyone to a concentration camp without a proper kangaroo trial; speedy trial by a “troika” was a must. In this respect Bush’s junta-style fascist regime in Gitmo, Afghanistan and Iraq, often identified as ‘the WOT’ (US is not quite there yet), are much worse than Stalin’s period of ‘sharpened class struggle’ (the ‘SCS’?) in the USSR.


MFB 04.25.05 at 5:28 am

This was a good post.

Why is everybody wasting time debating with people who attack it on unfounded bases by trying to change the subject to how ooofully awful some other country at some other time was?


Uncle Kvetch 04.25.05 at 8:29 am

Why is everybody wasting time debating with people who attack it on unfounded bases by trying to change the subject to how ooofully awful some other country at some other time was?

It is the knee-jerk response of hypernationalistic thugs so drunk on jingoism that even when their country is patently in the wrong, they will fall all over themselves arguing that it’s wrong for all the right reasons.

The blinders imposed by nationalism used to be summed up by the phrase “My country, right or wrong.” Many of the posters on this thread apparently prefer a more compact and economical version: “My country is never wrong.”


Steve LaBonne 04.25.05 at 8:29 am

I don’t like Bush. I don’t like his administration’s contempt for the Geneva Conventions. I don’t like Gitmo. Nonetheless, I’d have to say that we’re talking “world’s smallest violin” material here.


Andrew 04.25.05 at 9:00 am

On the other hand, if you were to list the countries in the world that are like the USSR in that they throw people in jail and keep them there for years based on zero evidence, you would have a list that includes the United States…

and many countries in continental Europe, where you can be imprisoned for years while your alleged crimes are investigated, guilty or not.


yabonn 04.25.05 at 9:49 am

Why is everybody wasting time debating with people who attack it on unfounded bases by trying to change the subject to how ooofully awful some other country at some other time was?

So we less courageous don’t have to.

I know i’m glad someone is dealing with the tiring routine of deny/minimize/look at the silver lining/change subject common to many bushophiles. It’s dirty (you know, bush didn’t say there were wmd in irak).

On the top of my mind, lately it’s the lancet study, the bushco movement against unions, and a few others topics who had their “arguing the obvious with partisan bigots” moment. C.t. is fun in many ways, these threads make it useful.

For both at the same time, there’s fafblog :)


Chris H 04.25.05 at 9:54 am

No, Belle is not defending what is good about America. If she is, she needs to learn how to write without ambiguity. How do you interpret this sentence:

Look, my country is better than this. Or this. Just. Stop.

Interpretation A: She’s saying we should stop saying or country is better than this, because it isn’t. In which case my original comment is correct, that she is attempting to shut down debate with one anecdote. A useless tactic, by the way — anecdotes can be constructed against or for anyone, and we should be so fortunate they are so ineffective at terminating debates.

Interpretation B: She’s saying she believes her country is better than this, and wants the US to stop screwing things up. In this interpretation my original comment is wrong, and I apologize.

It is unclear who “Just.Stop” is referring to: US authorities, or people who are claiming their country is better than “this.” The rest of the post depends on this. Belle, which is it?

Good day.

She is pleading with people to stop talking about how good/bad America is, and to just look at the crime at hand — at least, that is my reading of it. But it is an inherently weak post


Chris H 04.25.05 at 9:55 am

Ignore the trailing comment at the end of my last comment. That was a draft I pushed away.


Antiquated Tory 04.25.05 at 10:31 am

Indeed, there is a lot of heat and not much light in this thread, where the argument between the sane people is ‘Look at this bad thing that the government has done. We are on the slippery slope to the Gulags’ vs ‘Well, the government is doing bad things but it’s going a bit far to say we’re on the slippery slope to the Gulags.’
Given the kind of legal No Man’s Land and the intelligence vacumn in which the WOT operates (i.e. the US government has no idea what it’s doing but is very insistent on doing it) and given the nature of ‘security bureaucracies,’ I don’t think incidents like the one Belle describes are very surprising. There are parallels a-go-go in history, far short of Stalin or Hitler. Look at pretty much the story of most anti-colonialist uprisings, for example.
There was a momentum to events that 9/11 pushed that is inescapable, and there are also reasons why prior to 9/11 all administrations avoided taking more rigorous action against Bin Laden. It’s a big mess, a lot of people will suffer unfairly, and it will doubtless all end badly for the US as well, but the WOT is not going to bring the American legal and political system to an end. It will eventually be just another embarrassing chapter in the history books–or maybe just a few paragraphs.


Steve Burton 04.25.05 at 10:34 am

detached observer: you say “it’s strongly implied” that the accusations that got Dost imprisoned related to his anti-Clinton essay. But the Post article does not report what the Islamic cleric in Peshawar told the Pakistani intelligence agents or what they told the US. All one gathers is that Dost was accused of links to the Taliban and/or al Qaeda. If the satirical essay was the sole basis for that accusation, then his arrest was ridiculous and shameful – like when people in airports get all but strung up for joking about having a bomb in their luggage. But the article just doesn’t support that conclusion.

To imprison a man based on nothing more than the word of a personal enemy is, indeed, atrocious – if you know that’s what you’re doing. Unfortunately, finding out that an accusation is false and/or badly motivated may not be a trivial task. Since neither you nor I knows exactly what Dost was accused of or who his accuser was, we are in a poor position to judge how credible the accusation might reasonably have seemed at the time.

I’m not sure why you think that the case of Mandelstam supports your view, given that (a) you don’t indicate that anyone accused him of being an anti-government agent, and (b) he eventually ended up dead, apparently just for saying mean things about Stalin. Rather a good illustration, to my mind, of the huge gap between the Gulag and Guantanamo.

I do not “interpret the comparison ‘X is like Y’ to mean ‘X is like Y in every respect.'” But I do think that tendentious comparisons to the Gulag do more to discredit than to strengthen the case against American procedures at Guantanamo and elsewhere. They just look hysterical. I mean, here is abb1, going off about some respect in which “Bush’s junta-style fascist regime in Gitmo, Afghanistan and Iraq…[is] much worse than Stalin’s period…in the USSR” and uncle kvetch kvetching about “hypernationalistic thugs…drunk on jingoism.” The only thing that prevents this sort of thing from being really offensive is that it’s just so silly.

mfb: please note that Ms. Waring launched her post with a comparison to the Gulag. That is presumably why people are talking about that comparison.


KCinDC 04.25.05 at 10:37 am

Interpretation A is something you invented out of whole cloth. There are no quotation marks around “my country is better than this”, and no indication that the sentence isn’t in Belle’s own voice. In fact, the idea that the US is better than this (or is supposed to be better than this) is at the heart of her post. Your alternative parody interpretation makes no sense.


Steve Burton 04.25.05 at 10:39 am

antiquated tory: I wish that I had said that.


abb1 04.25.05 at 11:36 am

Steve, it may seem silly to you, but look, Sidney Blumenthal, former senior adviser to President Clinton, wrote this about a year ago: This is the new gulag

Bush has created what is in effect a gulag. It stretches from prisons in Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guantánamo to secret CIA prisons around the world. There are perhaps 10,000 people being held in Iraq, 1,000 in Afghanistan and almost 700 in Guantánamo, but no one knows the exact numbers. The law as it applies to them is whatever the executive deems necessary. There has been nothing like this system since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Here’s Tom Engelhardt, not a particularly silly guy: Inside the American Gulag

Duncan Campbell and Suzanne Goldenberg: America’s Secret Afghan Gulag

Eric Margolis @ the Toronto Sun: Uncle Sam has His Own Gulag

Post-gazette, Editorial:Guantanamo gulag

Silly? Clowns are silly.


George 04.25.05 at 12:17 pm

Great post, awful thread. It’s healthy for supporters of the War on Terror (like me, for instance) to be reminded where this could all lead if we are not careful. But if you want to treat stories like this as proof that we’re there already, the warning has no meaning, does it?

For those throwing around phrases like “human scum,” just try to imagine that maybe those who disagree with you also think they’re pursuing justice and peace.

PS: Both these stories concern the attempt to undo mistakes we’ve made. I can almost see Secretary Rice saying something like Just. Stop. (Especially the second time.)


Terry 04.25.05 at 12:51 pm

“Why is everybody wasting time debating with people who attack it on unfounded bases by trying to change the subject to how ooofully awful some other country at some other time was?”
Belle was explicitly comparing a prisoner of the US in Guantanomo with a prisoner in the Soviet Gulags. This was the topic of Belle’s post. I didn’t choose the topic, she did.


Uncle Kvetch 04.25.05 at 1:13 pm

Since neither you nor I knows exactly what Dost was accused of or who his accuser was, we are in a poor position to judge how credible the accusation might reasonably have seemed at the time.

Excellent point, Steve Burton. We don’t have all the facts, so who are we to judge? There may have been perfectly good reasons for the American government to imprison Dost in Guantanamo.

Likewise, the military may have had perfectly good reasons for detaining Khaled al-Masri for five months, and shackling him, and beating him, and photographing him in the nude, and drugging him, and then unceremoniously dumping him off in Albania. Who are we to judge?

And I’m sure you have perfectly good reasons for instinctively leaping to the defense of the most powerful military force in human history, and minimizing and rationalizing anything that even appears to be wrongdoing on its part.

We just don’t know the facts, so we should just keep our mouths shut–or, if we absolutely must speak out, we should do it in calm, reasoned tones, always remembering to sprinkle in generous amounts of “Yes, but” so that reasonable people don’t think we’re silly.


detached observer 04.25.05 at 1:18 pm

steve burton,

All one gathers is that Dost was accused of links to the Taliban and/or al Qaeda.

The article makes pretty clear that the evidence against Dost was: i. the essay he wrote ii. the word of a Pakistani cleric.

“I do think that tendentious comparisons to the Gulag do more to discredit than to strengthen the case against American procedures at Guantanamo…”

Nothing tendentious about the comparisons. Innocent men thrown in jail and kept there for years, based on nothing more than their speech and an informant’s report, without even a trial – this naturally evokes an image of the old USSR – as well as many other authoritarian regimes.

For some reason, you are stuck on the “but the Gulag was so much worse!” note. Once again, no one here said that Gitmo is like the Gulag in every respect. But in recent times, the number of similarities between this country and the USSR has increased – and this is a fact I am not very comfortable with. It really is not terribly soothing that the USSR was much, much worse. For this reason I (and I suspect others here) are intent on pointing out these new similarities in the hope that reasonable listeners whose judgement is not clouded when they hear “USA” and “Gulag” in the same sentence will see the how authoritarian and barbaric our policies on detention are.

I’m not sure why you think that the case of Mandelstam supports your view, given that (a) you don’t indicate that anyone accused him of being an anti-government agent, and (b) he eventually ended up dead, apparently just for saying mean things about Stalin.

I hereby indicate (a). As for (b), the point is that he was basically let go (exiled to a large city near the Ukraine) after the authorities discovered his poem. It was only repeated action that led to his execution. As for being caught with one anti-government eassy – kind of ironic that it was possible to receive a lesser punishment for the same crime back in the USSR.


nick 04.25.05 at 1:32 pm

Jonah Goldberg hawked ‘The Clinton Tapes’ on eBay, didn’t he? Time to send him to Gitmo.


Steve Burton 04.25.05 at 1:35 pm

Yes, uncle kvetch: “we should [speak out] in calm, reasoned tones, always remembering to sprinkle in generous amounts of ‘Yes, but’ so that reasonable people don’t think we’re silly.” Assuming, of course, that you actually want to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.

detached observer: I have nothing to add to my previous remarks.


detached observer 04.25.05 at 2:25 pm

steve burton: thanks for letting me know


Walt Pohl 04.25.05 at 5:53 pm

Steve: I don’t want to convince you. Clearly you are already damned. I just want you to shut the fuck up.


Uncle Kvetch 04.25.05 at 8:22 pm

Thanks, Walt. I very nearly wrote the same thing.


PTT 04.25.05 at 10:16 pm

I don’t want to convince you. Clearly you are already damned. I just want you to shut the fuck up.

Remind me who’s defending tolerance and free speech here.


Terry 04.26.05 at 12:22 am

Well, comrades, I made it. In the last episode I was about to be arrested by an unnamed gov’t agency and hauled down to Gitmo. Well, I knocked out the guard, stole a parachute and jumped from the plane seconds before the plane touched the runway. With my rugged Aryan looks and my lily-white skin I should be able to pass myself off to the workers on the base as a ecologist investigating the decline of the local rainforest. I’m submitting this post from my blackberry as I tromp through the jungle . . .
Oh my gosh! It’s worse than I thought! I’ve never seen so much razor wire! And the dogs! The Yanks have got the poor bastards organized into work gangs and they’re heading out to the cane fields. Poor bastards, they’ll work them from sunrise to sundown on a starvation diet. And look! There! That low, cinderblock building in the middle of a malaria infested swamp! That must be where they keep the hard cases! How can the work gangs be so large? The government says they’ve only got five hundred people at Gitmo.
Oh. I see. Damn.
I’ve landed on the wrong side of the fence.


abb1 04.26.05 at 2:23 am

…on a starvation diet.

Don’t worry, you’ll be able to get some vitamins licking that menstrual blood they spray onto you face.


abb1 04.26.05 at 4:00 am

The Independent reports:

…Mr Deghayes was terrorised by one technique – shoving prisoners into a chamber nicknamed the “snake room”. The Libyan claimed: “One day they took me to a room that had very large snakes in glass boxes. The room was painted black and white, with dim lights. They threatened to leave me there, and let the snakes out with me in the room. This really got to me, as these were such sick people that they must have had this room specially made.”

Over his two months in Afghanistan, he added, they starved him of food for nearly eight days, deprived him of light “for days on end”, “effectively suffocated” him in an airtight box, and subjected him to beatings and being forced to live naked for long periods “as part of the humiliation process”.

He added: “The camp looked like the Nazi camps that I saw in films … Lying on the floor of the compound, all night I would hear the screams of others in the rooms above us, as they were tortured and interrogated. My number would be called out, and I would have to go to the gate. They chained me, and put a bag over my head, dragging me off for my own turn. They would force me to my knees for questioning. They would threaten me with more torture.”


KCinDC 04.26.05 at 7:28 am

Belle: My country is better than this.

Terry: No, it’s not, but it’s better than Castro.


bob mcmanus 04.26.05 at 9:51 am

Steve and Terry make me question how broadly I show cast my burning rage and hate. Obviously it should not be limited to a few bad leaders at the top of the torture chain, but extends above them to many, if not all, of the people who voted for torture and war crimes. May I hate, with a passion that will not fade with time, 40+ million people? Or have they deniability, like the Germans who enjoyed the victories and spoils without responsibility?

I am told I am a bad person for spreading the blame so far. The Holsclaws and Charles Birds say “torture bad” but “George Bush very good!” and they must be forgiven and presumed pure and innocent.

There are weapons and tools big enough to fit my fantasies of revenge, but I know I will never get my hands on them. And the people who might, Kerry and H Clinton and Edwards, won’t even use them against the thugs the rank-and-file Republicans hired to fulfil their sick psychopathic desires.


David All 04.26.05 at 6:00 pm

abb1 # 65: Strongly advise not relying on anything printed in that anti-American, anti-Semitic leftist rag, the Independent (A name appropriate in only in the sense of being Independent of both facts and common sense.) Its history of smears included the most vile kind of anti-Jewish hatred with a cover potraying Israeli PM Ariel Sharon eating Palestinian babies!

terry # 63: Great, hits the nail on the head. In the inmortal of Emily Latolla (Gilda Ratner, God Bless her) on Saturday Night Live in the 70s, “Never Mind!”.


David All 04.26.05 at 6:05 pm

Opps, sorry did not proof read, last remark accurately enough. Meant to say “In the inmortal WORDS of Emily Latolla”


B. K. Moran 04.26.05 at 6:14 pm

Guantanamo’s just across the Windward Passage from Haiti. Remember Haiti?
And it’s on the island of Cuba. Is that surreal or what? Lee Atwater was a master of that kind of gesture in miniature, the profoundly unbelievable shockingly unreal badness that leaves the uninitiated dumbstruck. Admit it, you’re dumbstruck. While the nightmare inches across the landscape toward your own little pile of blankets. Get some more pillows!
Castro’s so horrible we have to run our extra-judicial S&M scenes on his turf just so he knows what’s what.
And asking us to stop is spice, just spice in the sauce.
Make us stop.
Just try it.
C’mon we dare you.


Terry 04.26.05 at 7:41 pm

This will be my last entry. My Blackberry has been taken by the guards. Fools. Those inbred hillbillies will never learn how it works. They think it’s a cell phone. I’m using a hidden feature in WordPress and posting this comment via carrier pigeon.

Little did I know, comrades, when I made that intemperate remark about our president (comment #34) I would be apprehended by an unnamed branch of our government & packed off to Guantanamo. Nor did I foresee that my attempt to escape would leave me stuck in one Fidel’s prison camps (comment #63).
Fortunately I was able to escape that hellhole by bribing the guards with a carburetor from a ’55 Ford Fairlane. I always carry one. I darkened my complexion and hair with walnut juice (thanks for the disguise tip, Fess Parker!) and so made my way to the coast without being betrayed by my rugged aryan good looks and lily white skin (stop me if I’m being repetitive). Once on the coast I assembled a raft from scrap wood and started paddling towards Amurrica.
Unfortunately I was picked up by the US Coast Guard. Seems they have some stupid “wet foot-dry foot” rule so they were going to send me back to Castro’s socialist paradise. The only way out was to reveal my true identity.
So here I am, in Gitmo. I lost an eye in a prison riot when I got into an eye-gouging contest with one of the guards, but other than that I’m fine. The interrogation wasn’t as bad as I thought. I had menstrual blood smeared on my face but, jeez, like that’s never happened before. The hallucinatory horror of the snake room turned out to be hallucinatory, and that was kind of a bummer. If the infant Hercules could strangle the snakes Hera sent to kill him, how much trouble could it be for an adult with my superior genetic matrix to take care of a few crawlies? And what is it with menstrual blood and snakes in these interrogations? Somebody needs to read up on their Freud.
So don’t feel too sorry for me, comrades. I’ll probably be here forever, but I’m not completely without resources. I’ve been translating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Esparanto in my spare time. I write messages on cigarette rolling papers and send them off via carrier pigeon to friends in the US.

I can’t post to CT anymore because I’m down to my last pigeon. I had three at one time, but one was killed by a bunch of rethuglican golfers. It landed on the putting green of golf course in Mississippi and the rethuglicans mistook it for the last of the passenger pigeons and promptly beat it to death with their clubs. The other missing pigeon dissappeared over the gulf a few secnds after the deadly American missile defense system got a radar lock on it. I fear for the worst.


Uncle Kvetch 04.27.05 at 8:25 am

You’ve convinced me, Terry. Even if we torture innocent people, we’re officially, undeniably better than Cuba, and that’s good enough for me.



wai 04.27.05 at 3:14 pm

Odd that no one thought to mention that the “genuine” gulags had to start somewhere. I doubt they sprang up, full-blown, from the tundra. Let’s not talk about the slippery slope obliquely. We have taken a fork in the road, and the point here is that we better be careful we don’t go too far to turn back.


rob stowell 04.28.05 at 12:16 am

Any comfort one might try to take from Gitmo being “not quite a gulag” rather slides away if you take this New Yorker article http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?050214fa_fact6 at all seriously. We can pretty reliably know that the treatment of Gitmo prisoners isn’t up to gulag standards. What the “extraordinary rendition” program does however, seems both sneaky and vicious. i’m waiting for them to come for terry….

Comments on this entry are closed.