Guantananmo: bloody stain on US values.

From The Scotsman, Published on 21/05/2013 00:00

Obama’s broken promises may prove a turning point in support for US, says Jackie Kemp

EITHER the office of the president of the United States is a powerless cipher, or Barack Obama is a charlatan and a coward. I have often spoken up for America, arguing that its leadership offers the world a better future than the alternatives, so it saddens me to write these words. But no other conclusion can be reached, given the current situation at Guantanamo.

About 100 of the 166 prisoners held there are on hunger strike and increasing numbers of them are being subjected daily to brutal attacks – tubes being forcibly inserted into their bodies to feed them against their will in the name of denying them their last remaining right over their own bodies.

When Obama spoke of remembering “our better history” and taking that into the future at his first inauguration, I thought I knew what he meant. He promised then to close Guantanamo. But what price America’s love of freedom, justice and equality before the law now? It appears that these are simply totems upon which they smugly congratulate themselves on high days and holidays. They do not practise them.

The White House believes that the prisoners in Guantanamo are too dangerous to release even though they may not have committed any crimes, according to one American newspaper. I am sure that each and every prisoner in Guantanamo has now, if he did not have before his decade-long imprisonment without trial, an implacable hatred of America. So must his supporters.

But those who would once have considered speaking up for the US and for American values must stay silent now. America is strengthening its enemies and betraying its friends every time it forces a tube through one of these men’s nostrils.

Obama likes to portray this as the fault of Republicans in Congress. I am not sure that this will wash. The president must have some power in his office and if he does not, then he should resign rather than carry on as an effective prisoner of his own administration, powerless to act.

It appears to the world as if when America was tested, as it has been tested by terrorism, it was quick to abandon its principles. Americans may have something to learn from the English on this point. Writing as a Scot, I have never admired the English more than on the days when, as a young journalist, I reported on the aftermath of IRA attacks. The people of London went about their business with a phlegmatic calm, almost as if nothing had happened. In the years when these attacks were common on the Tube, I once saw a man look up from his newspaper to explain to a horrified American tourist in a bored voice that the train had stopped in the tunnel merely because of a bomb scare.

Like other countries, Britain has a bloody, imperial history abroad. But the English people have a proud history of defending their principles and of calling their rulers to account if they do not stick to them at home. I think of this whenever I hear the national anthem. It was first sung in a theatre in Drury Lane when the Jacobites were on the march towards the capital in 1745, hence the verse that is not sung today about the rebellious Scots. The English had effectively rejected the Stuart kings because of their overweening notion of their own divine right and their failure to respect the rights of the individual. Bonnie Prince Charlie, reared in exile, must have been fed a lifelong diet of how his people would rise up and support him when given the chance. But with his Highland army on the march through northern England, he found that his people were, at best, apathetic. They showed no sign of welcoming him.

King George II, born and raised in Germany, did not seem popular. But as the kilted army approached London and many fashionable folk began to flee, George went to the Drury Lane theatre. On entering the royal box, the audience serenaded him with a heartfelt rendition of a new song – God Save Our King. It was a turning point.

There was nothing stopping the Jacobites from taking London. There was no defence at all in place, when at the 11th hour a spy returned to the Jacobite camp from a scouting mission. He was a double agent working for the English. He told the Scottish leaders that there was another huge English army between them and the city of London and they believed his story.

The Jacobites decided to call it a day and head for home. If the Highland army had understood the consequences of defeat, they may well have stood their ground. An English army was brought back from the continent and, after a bloody massacre at Culloden, pursued the fugitives into the heather. A year of burning and laying waste to Jacobite areas ensued. It was the beginning of the end for the Highland way of life. Among other things, the wearing of Highland dress and carrying arms were outlawed. Except of course in the new Highland regiment of the British army, the Black Watch, created in 1745 to recruit loyal Highlanders and which became a way of absorbing the martial young men of the area into the sponge of the British imperial state. Now that was a smart move.

Whether or not Scotland chooses independence next year has nothing to do with hatred of the English, despite Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s diatribe after a barracking in Edinburgh last week. Scots do not claim any history of oppression at English hands. But if history teaches us anything, it is that hearts and minds matter more than military might.

Turning points are psychological as much as military: the moment in that Drury Lane theatre when the audience started to sing, or perhaps a moment in 1962 when a South African lawyer called Nelson Mandela told the world why he fought the “lack of human dignity” with which he and his people were treated.

He said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

History will also remember the moment when an American lawyer called Barack Obama decided that force feeding untried prisoners in Guantanamo Bay was consistent with the noble principles and ideals he and his country claimed to stand for.