The enduring scandal at Guantanamo

by Chris Bertram on January 9, 2012

The position of the last British detainee at Guantanamo, Shaker Aamer, is in the UK news today. He’s never been charged with anything and was “cleared for release” under the Bush administration. He is in failing health. For protesting about his own treatment and that of others, he is confined to the punishment block. It seems the reason the Aamer can’t be released today is that the US Congress has imposed absurd certification requirements on the US Secretary of Defense, such that Panetta would be personally reponsible for any future criminal actions by the released inmate. One of the reasons why the US Congress has put these obstacles up is because of claims made by the US military about “recidivism”, claims that also get some scrutiny in the report. It would seem that subsequent protests about conditions in the camp, writing a book about it or making a film, are counted as instances of “recidivism”. Astonishing. You can listen to a BBC radio report here (start at 7′ 40″) (I’d been thinking about Guantanamo anyway, because of the “superb and moving article by Lakhdar Boumediene in the New York Times, “: which you should also read.)

Whilst it is good to see this issue getting more coverage in the mainstream media in the UK and the US, it is depressing how little uptake there has been among politicians and, indeed, the online community. The long-term detention, mistreatment and probable torture of people who have never been convicted of anything, ought to be a matter uniting people across the political spectrum who care about human rights. Unfortunately, outside of a small coterie of activists, the best you get is indifference or even active hostility. Indeed, those who campaign on behalf of the inmates have themselves been villified (by conservatives or the “decent left”) for such “crimes” as comparing the Guantanamo regime to past totalitarian governments (as if such comparison is more offensive than the acual treatment of the detainees). Depressing.

Recent Roads To Ruin?

by John Holbo on January 9, 2012

Several years ago I read – and posted about – a book I quite enjoyed: Roads To Ruin, The Shocking History of Social Reform (1950), by E.S. Turner. (Reasonably inexpensive used copies available from all likely sources.)

It’s basically a survey of forgotten British moral panics of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Predictions of the death of decency and/or fall of Western Civilization meet social reform proposals that sound (to us today) right and proper, or at least reasonable, or at least unlikely to bring about apocalypse.

Daylight savings. Should the ban on marrying your dead wife’s sister be lifted? Should spring guns be banned? Should children be forbidden to buy gin (for their parents, not themselves) in pubs? (You might think that the panic was over a proposal to let children buy gin. But no.)

It’s in the minor nature of these cases that, 30 years on – let alone 150 years – we forget these were hot-button culture war issues. Suppose we were to rewrite Turner’s book today. What cases can you come up with? Now-forgotten moral panics in the face of social reforms enacted in, say, the last 75 years?

No-fault divorce and legalized birth control are good examples. Same-sex marriage is going to grow up to be an example, I’m reasonably sure. But the genius of Turner’s book is that his cases are so minor. Birth-control and easy divorce were big deals, socially. Opponents were right about that much. Letting men marry their dead wive’s sisters, by contrast, was never going to make a big difference. What recent examples can you think of that are more like the latter? I’m looking for cases in which politicians and pundits and and so forth really got into the game. It’s a big hand-wringing public End Is Nigh botheration. And, in retrospect, it’s not just wrong-headed but fantastically silly.

It’s more common, I suppose, to get these sorts of moral panics about some new thing the kids are up to. Dungeons and Dragons is turning children into satanists. (Ah, those were the days.) Let’s try to restrict ourselves to cases in which social reformers, not the kids, are the targets. What have you got for me?