A few years ago I spent several days sitting in the back of a library in London, reading through newsletters, pamphlets and other accounts of Soviet prison conditions published in the 1970s and ’80s by Amnesty International. Sometimes these reports were remarkably detailed, testifying to the extraordinary ability of prisoners to smuggle out their stories. One included the memorable observation that on Sept. 13, 1979, the prisoner Zhukauskas “found a white worm” in his soup. A more harrowing 1987 news release told the story of the hunger strike and prison death of dissident writer Anatoly Marchenko. His widow, denied a death certificate or a proper funeral, wrote his name in ballpoint pen on his makeshift grave.
But Amnesty also published more general information about the Soviet political system, the whole of which — the state-run media, the courts, the secret police — was geared to the suppression of political dissent. This was important work, not least because most Soviet citizens were too frightened to do it. After all, during Joseph Stalin’s lifetime, still a recent memory, some 25 million people had been arrested in the Soviet Union, mostly arbitrarily, and placed in thousands of forced-labor camps and exile villages all over the country. Millions died of starvation and overwork. This prison camp system, known as the gulag, cast such a horrific shadow that people were still afraid of it, 30 years after Stalin’s death.
Amnesty, in other words, was an organization that once knew the meaning of the word “gulag.” Amnesty also once knew the importance of political neutrality. On its Web site, the organization still describes itself as “independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion.” In the Cold War era, this neutrality was important, since it prevented the organization’s publications, whether on prison food or prison deaths, from being seen as propaganda for one side or another.
I don’t know when Amnesty ceased to be politically neutral or at what point its leaders’ views morphed into ordinary anti-Americanism. But surely Amnesty’s recent misuse of the word “gulag” marks some kind of turning point. In the past few days, not only has Amnesty’s secretary general, Irene Khan, called the U.S. prison for enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “the gulag of our times,” but Amnesty’s U.S. director, William Schulz, has agreed that U.S. prisons for enemy combatants are “similar at least in character, if not in size, to what happened in the gulag.” In an interview, Schulz also said that foreign governments should prosecute U.S. officials, as if they were the equivalent of the Soviet Union’s criminal leadership.
Thus Guantanamo is the gulag, President Bush is Generalissimo Stalin, and the United States, in Khan’s words, is a “hyper-power” that “thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights” just like the Soviet Union. In part, I find this comparison infuriating because in the Soviet Union it would have been impossible for the Supreme Court to order the administration to change its policies in Guantanamo Bay, as it has done, or for the media to investigate Abu Ghraib, as they has done, or for Irene Khan to publish an independent report about anything at all.
Like Khan and Schulz, I am appalled by this administration’s detention practices and interrogation policies, by the lack of a legal mechanism to judge the guilt of alleged terrorists, and by the absence of any outside investigation into reports of prison abuse. But I loathe these things precisely because the United States is not the Soviet Union, because our detention centers are not intrinsic to our political system, and because they are therefore not “similar in character” to the gulag at all.
Most of all, though, I hate them because they are counterproductive. Like the Cold War, the war on terrorism is an ideological war, one that we will “win” when our opponents give up and join us, just like the East Germans who streamed over the Berlin Wall. But if the young people of the Arab world are to reject radical Islam and climb that wall, they will have to admire what they see on the other side. Almost never before have we so badly needed neutral, credible, human rights advocates who can investigate the U.S. detention policy in context, remembering that we live in a system whose courts, legislature and media can all effect change.
Amnesty, by misusing language, by discarding its former neutrality, and by handing the administration an easy way to brush off “ridiculous” accusations, also deprives itself of what should be its best ally. The United States, as the world’s largest and most powerful democracy, remains, for all its flaws, the world’s best hope for the promotion of human rights. If Amnesty still believes in its stated mission, its leaders should push American democratic institutions to influence U.S. policy for the good of the world, and not attack the American government for the satisfaction of their own political faction.