Do you ever feel like you don't recognize your country anymore?
Maybe the moment came for you when five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court handed a presidential election to one of their own. Maybe it came when the president took America to war based on pretenses that turned out to be false. Maybe it came when you saw those photographs from Abu Ghraib, or when you learned that the man who helped orchestrate America's torture policies would become its attorney general. Maybe all of those things built up in your mind until your idea of America started to seem a long way off from the reality around you.
Maybe that hasn't happened to you yet. And maybe it will when you read about the plight of two young men from China who have spent the last three years locked up inside the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.
Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim are Muslims who left their homes in China to flee religious persecution there. As their lawyer has told the Boston Globe, Qassim and al-Hakim met each other at a market in Kyrgystan right around the time of the attacks of Sept. 11. They decided to make their way together to Turkey, where they apparently planned to set up new lives for themselves and the families they hoped would follow. Instead, Qassim and al-Hakim were arrested by Pakistani police, who thought they might be al-Qaida members. The Pakistanis turned them over to the United States -- apparently in exchange for a $5,000-per-head bounty. And the United States shipped them off to Guantánamo Bay, where they have been held ever since.
Why? Well, for no reason at all, it turns out. In March of this year -- which is to say, three years after the United States took Qassim and al-Hakim into custody -- a U.S. Combatant Status Review Tribunal concluded that the two men were not enemy combatants but merely had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the America in our minds, that means that they were released immediately with the nation's apologies, with something approaching fair compensation and with a guarantee of safe passage back to wherever it is they wanted to go. But that's not what happened in the America in which we're actually living.
Although Qassim and al-Hakim were cleared in March, the United States didn't bother to share that fact with anyone outside Guantánamo. And having been denied contact with their lawyers or their family members, the men had no way to spread the word themselves. So for four more months, they sat in Guantánamo, cleared but not freed.
The men were finally allowed to meet with the lawyers in late July, and they were able then to reveal the news that they had been cleared. The government confirmed that fact for the lawyers last week. So are the men free now? No. Their lawyers asked a federal judge in Washington to order their release yesterday, but the government is resisting. The U.S. says it can't send the men back to China because it fears they'll be persecuted there, and it hasn't found any other country that is willing to take them. Why not release them into the civilian population at Guantánamo until something better can be arranged? Can't do that, either, the government says. "They have been detained in here with some very bad people, under some very bad influences," Guantánamo spokesman and Army Maj. Jeff Weir tells the Globe. "We can't just release them into a hotel amongst the civilians on the base ... We understand the point of what the lawyers are saying, but it's an impossibility."
Of course, Qassim and al-Hakim weren't surrounded by "very bad people" and "very bad influences" until the United States purchased them from the Pakistanis and locked them up at Guantánamo. Maybe we're naive, but it seems to us that the United States had a moral obligation to find a good solution for Qassim and al-Hakim four months -- if not three years -- ago. U.S. District Judge James Robertson seems to be thinking the same way. At a hearing yesterday, Robertson said he may order the Bush administration to deliver the two men to his courtroom in Washington in order to get them out of Guantánamo Bay -- or at least require that the men be moved outside the barbed wire of Guantánamo's detention facility and into housing the U.S. provides there for Cubans and Haitians who are seeking asylum in the United States.
That would be a start toward making things right -- and a small step toward making this nation something like the one we remember.