By their own hands

June 15, 2006

It's not exactly big news when a prisoner in an American jail or detention center or penitentiary kills himself, nor is it something that causes very many people on the outside a great deal of anguish. But when it happens at a U.S. prison camp that has become a symbol worldwide of disregard for the law, international norms and basic fairness - and when not one but three prisoners hang themselves simultaneously - it's an embarrassment that Americans should take seriously.

Guantanamo, where the triple suicide was discovered Saturday, may have seemed like a clever idea when it was set up following the war in Afghanistan, but it has become an enormous millstone. About 460 inmates are housed there, and long after their ability to provide any useful information came to an end, and long after the U.S. had to give up any hopes of ever bringing any of them to a fair trial, Bush administration officials have finally begun wondering what to do. They would clearly love to be rid of this mess of their own making, but don't know how to go about it.

"I'd like to close Guantanamo," President Bush said yesterday. "I also recognize that we're holding some people that are darn dangerous."

Ironies abound. After abusing prisoners for four years, the U.S. is reluctant to send some of them - the obviously innocent ones, especially - back to home countries if it's likely they'll face even more abuse there. Five Muslim Uighurs from western China were caught in this trap until Albania agreed to take them in - perhaps only temporarily.

Though the head of a visiting Afghan delegation yesterday declared that conditions at the prison are humane, political leaders in Britain and Denmark - America's staunchest allies in the wars of the 21st century - have called for Guantanamo to close, and they are right. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, reiterated that idea yesterday in Seattle. Five human rights monitors at the United Nations, who have been denied access to Guantanamo, also appealed yesterday for its closure.

To keep it open is to invite the scorn of much of the world, especially the Muslim world, at American pronouncements about spreading liberty and democracy. Keeping it open suggests that there's much to hide, that an uncomfortable truth about conditions there might be brought to light if inmates were released. Inaction also implies that Bush administration officials are simply waiting for their terms to expire in 2009, and content to let the next administration clear up the mess.

All of this is unacceptable. Guantanamo serves no purpose, but every day that it remains open it inflicts damage on America's interests. The three men who took their own lives were clearly acting in concert; there may have been a conspiracy. If it helps hasten the shuttering of their rogue prison, it's America that will benefit.

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