Ninety miles off Miami, the United States today maintains, in virtual total secrecy, a prison camp on U.S. soil at Guantanamo, Cuba.
About 660 prisoners (their exact number is also secret) represent the human debris of the war in Afghanistan -- Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, Saudis, Pakistanis and others of various nationalities. Taken prisoner about 18 months ago, they have been held in total isolation without judicial proceedings of any kind and without contact with their families.
I am in no position to judge these prisoners. Presumably, they are accused of attacks or assaults or terrorism against American-led military forces in Afghanistan. Their acts may well have been brutal. There is no way to know because the accusations against them are secret.
But I too have been held prisoner, and I can attest to the extremely demoralizing effect of not knowing what will happen, or when -- of not knowing what one's captors have planned or whether there is any hope for release.
I was charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and was taken hostage along with 52 other Americans after the Iranian revolution. For 444 long and, for many of us, physically painful days -- including solitary confinement -- we did not know our fate.
Day after day, well beyond the physical abuse -- and one would like to believe that there is less such abuse for our prisoners at Guantanamo than there was for many of the hostages in Tehran -- it was the agonizing uncertainty that hurt most.
Most of my colleagues in Tehran spent their entire captivity without contact with, or mail from, their families. Like those in Guantanamo, most were held alone and allowed little if any contact with their fellow hostages. Several spent almost their entire captivity in solitary. Open dialogue was prohibited by and with those who held them, and they had absolutely no knowledge of any planning for their release. Endless boredom prevailed, punctuated by occasional mock executions or other surprises.
For those who are being held today on that isolated patch of ground in Cuba, it must be degrading in the extreme. Prison confinement under any conditions is painful; total isolation is infinitely worse.
According to press reports, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross recently visited the camp and reported, among other things, evidence of a "worrying deterioration" and clinical depression among a good many of the detainees. The findings also noted 32 suicide attempts to date.
To my knowledge, none of the Iranian hostages attempted suicide, although a few did attempt to escape; their inevitable failure meant deepened isolation. Of course there was depression. Several showed the effects on their return to freedom; one or two experience it to this day.
Official U.S. government policy on the Guantanamo detainees insists that circumstances surrounding their capture justify the manner of their detention. But even granted the limits that the war on terror imposes on judicial proceedings, what appears to be happening in the camp, and, yes, what is not happening, is wrong. The effect on our image abroad is increasingly adverse. And it is unworthy of American traditions and precepts of justice.
Bruce Laingen was the highest-ranking U.S. official held hostage in Iran.