I first visited Germany as a tourist in 1990. I was 46, and it was my first experience with a people who represent a third of my heritage. I'm a German/English/Swedish American. Mostly I identify Germany as my primary European provenance. That was reinforced by people I saw on the streets of Germany. They looked like me and I them, so much so that occasionally a German would approach me, speaking in German, to ask directions.
While in Germany I found myself looking at passersby who appeared to be about 20 years or more older than me and I would wonder and want to ask: "What did you know about the Nazi-led murders of Jews and others during World War II? What did you know about what would later be called the Holocaust? Did you try to do anything about it?"
I never asked. It seemed impolite. After spending more than two years in Germany I came home to the United States thinking of Germans as very nice people. Very warm. Very friendly. Very decent. Very human.
I recalled this after reading a New York Times guest column by lawyer and author John Grisham ("After Guantanamo, another injustice," Aug. 11) about the plight of Nabil Hadjarab, a 34-year-old Algerian/French inmate who was held at Guantanamo Bay prison for 11 years. Grisham and other reports on Hadjarab (the Guardian, Huffington Post and others) say this guy was sold for $5,000 to the U.S. military by a bounty hunter after he was found to have been living in an Algerian guesthouse in Afghanistan on the day of 9/11. He arrived at Guantanamo in 2002 and remained there until Wednesday even though he was not charged or convicted of anything and twice, under former President George W. Bush in 2007 and President Barack Obama in 2009, was cleared for release.
But there he remained — until his release to Algeria — with scores of other detainees like himself, cleared for release but denied release, even denied the right and dignity to die of hunger as many inmates are prepared to do to protest their treatment.
Our country, and that's all of us, denies these people the right to live and the right to die. No contact with family. No hope.
Guantanamo is a modern military prison. A very state-of-the-art clean, well-lighted place judging by television news reports. But a dungeon the way I see it. How can we call it anything else, such a place where people are locked up, the keys thrown away?
That brings me back to my memories of wondering what ordinary people did or did not do in World War II Germany and, now, wondering what we might say to our grandchildren and their kids when they ask about this time when Americans ran the most modern dungeon in history.
I am not comparing Guantanamo to the Holocaust. That word rightfully belongs to the murders of millions during World War II. Guantanamo doesn't even begin to approach that. But many inmates are living without hope and under conditions that collide with rules of law that we Americans supposedly believe in. They, each of them, are living their own personal holocausts.
And it's on our watch. We are operators of a prison holding many one-time terror suspects who have not been charged, tried or convicted and in many cases found to be suitable to be freed and restored to their families but still remain in prison.