The stark contrast between real life at Guantanamo Bay, and the fantasy that has been built up around the so-called "hardened terrorists" who are housed there was brought into high relief this week.
On Monday, officials told the Associated Press that a 31-year-old Yemeni detainee -- Muhammmad Ahmad Abdallah Salih -- had killed himself in his cell. Salih, who admitted that he had gone to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, had spent 7.5 years behind bars at Guantanamo.
What we know of Salih's story, provided when the US military reviewed his case in 2004, suggests that he was not "one of the worst of the worst." Indeed, Salih claims not to have heard of Al Qaeda until after his incarceration. Being a member of the Taliban "does not mean I supported Osama Bin Laden," Salih said through his military-appointed attorney.
The day after Salih's death was reported, T-Enterprise, a British gaming company, announced that it would soon release a video game for the XBox360 that would put the gamer in the position Salih once faced. But instead of going on prolonged hunger strikes and ultimately hanging himself (the only methods of resistance apparently available to Salih) the gaming company announced that it would be up to you (the game player) "to fight back" and try to escape Gitmo.
Twenty-four hours after releasing a promo hyping the game, the company cancelled it, explaining that the game was never meant to "glamorize terror." The game was meant to be based on the story of a fictional character named "Adam" who was not a terrorist, but was held at Gitmo in "a case of mistaken identity," the company announced.
Then Wednesday, John Boehner, a Republican Congressman sent a communique to his supporters asking for donations to support his efforts to keep Guantanamo open. "Stop Obama from Bringing Terrorists to Your Neighborhood" the email's subject line implored. The 240 detainees at Guantanamo are not "common criminals," Boehner told his supporters, they are "the world's most dangerous terrorists."
So who was Salih? Was he one of the world's most dangerous terrorists as Congressman Boehner believes? Or was he more like "Adam" the fictional character who was to be featured in T-Enterprise's game?
What little we know about him suggests that this was more of a man to be pitied than feared. Andy Worthington's excellent blog post sums up the limited amount of public information available.
This was a man who was picked up by his enemies and turned over to the United States where he has been held (without charge or meaningful judicial review) ever since. Government records show that he was one of dozens of men at the prison who chose to protest the circumstances under which they were confined by hunger striking. His weight dropped lower than 90 pounds at times.
After successfully holding people like Timothy McVeigh, the blind sheikh (who masterminded the first World Trade Center bombing), and Jeffrey Dahmer in federal prison, it seems likely that the prisons could also have managed Salih without incident. (Indeed, there are reportedly more than 300 people held in federal prisons in connection with terrorism charges.)
Salih was the fourth detainee who successfully committed suicide at Guantanamo. He becomes in death what he may not have ever intended to be in life: an inspiration to extremists who sympathize with Al Qaeda.
If Salih's death is to have any meaning, I hope it will cause at least some Americans to think (if for only a moment) about the costs associated with keeping the detention facility at Guantanamo open. Going forward, despite what Congressman Boehner may think, we can do better.