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Guantanamo Bay

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-03-12

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

‘Terribly sorry officer, I was only backpacking through the bank when the safe happened to explode.’

As you might expect the whole Amen Chorus of bleeding hearts is gathering around the returning ex-detainees from Guantanamo bay.

They are eager to express their horror, disgust and moral outrage at the vicious Americans for using methods to try to protect themselves from terrorism that do not quite match up to the gentlemanly rule of law as applied in Britain and other civilized countries. The detainees were not given the rights and full panoply of legal procedures that the very cause they espouse derides, as the symbols of Western decadence. They were held in cruel cages under harsh conditions without trial. From my days as a prison visitor I can tell you I’d prefer a cage in the sun on Cuba to a smelly damp concrete hole in Wandsworth or almost any other one of Her Majesty’s Jails.

Yes, anyone coming out of any sort of prison needs and ought to be given support and help in readjusting to everyday life. But one is bound to ask in this case, even if these returnees have not been found technically guilty of anything, what the heck were they doing in war Zones in Afghanistan in the first place? Backpacking? Then why nowhere near tourist spots, city centres or nightclubs? Why in the very zones where fighting was taking place? As one of them put it, he went to Pakistan just to arrange a wedding. So how come he was caught in Tora Bora? Looking for a different venue was he?

No it is not a crime in itself to go and fight for a cause you believe in. Neither is it a crime to fight against invaders. However if you are fighting against your own countrymen then I suspect the law will have something unkind to say about you. And if you get caught with your pants down or what looks like a gun, you cannot expect soft treatment. The Guantanamo bay internees were caught where they ought not to have been if they were completely innocent and under combat conditions as well. Perhaps evidence of the sort that would stand up in court was missing. Perhaps the grounds to convict and jail a burglar in Barnet were absent. But I suggest that when you are dealing with people who have a track record of setting out to kill innocents, destroy  the fabric of societies, deny freedom and choice to millions of others, then perhaps, perhaps other criteria should apply.

The flurry of attention the released men are getting raises two issues. The first is simply the desire for publicity. Our sick society is now swamped by the cult of celebrities. In most cases they become ‘selebritees’ simply because of having done something stupid, crass or illegal. We used to make fun of the white trash fighting it out on the Jerry Springer Show. Now millions of citizens of supposedly educated, liberated societies are hooked on watching so called reality shows peopled with nonentities and often turning the participants into ‘selebritees.’ If you do something crass, crude or illegal, preferably on TV you will be paid lots of money for your story. Commit a crime and everyone wants to know you. Be a law abiding useful citizen and no one gives a damn. The press of all sorts that now rely on the Hello, OK, mentality to sell papers and programmes. They shower money on people who have achieved nothing of note in life, while teachers and social workers and others who benefit society day by day are thrown crumbs. So get into trouble. Go and join a terrorist organisation get yourself arrested and imprisoned and bingo, fame and fortune will follow.

On a more serious level, of course there needs to be due process of law. But terrorism is different. And as in Jewish Law, one must always abide by the constitution. But if you are convinced someone is up to no good and threatens you, then for Heaven’s sake, get in first and neutralize the threat and then ask questions.

Those parts of the Torah that seem on the face of it to support immediate and drastic response have always disturbed me. After the Golden Calf episode (which we read this week on Shabbat) Moses gathers the Levites and tells them to go kill the instigators. 3,000 are killed. What I find amazing is how two thousand years ago the rabbis were very concerned to argue that Moses followed due process of law. The Midrash provides a range of textual proofs that show how only those convicted on the basis of actual evidence could have been executed and then only in accordance with a pre-stated legal principle. And yet on odd occasions, such as Pinchas’s intervention, exceptional circumstances called for exceptional actions even ultra vires.

Here too, while maintaining a system of legal rights and privileges and safeguards for the average citizen, we need to recognize that conditions of war and the threat of terrorism do call for exceptional safeguards and measures. But the strength and weakness of a liberal, democratic society is that must let everyone have a say, including the fools.

Shabbat Shalom

Jeremy