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Six Questions on the American “Gulag” for Historian Kate Brown

Six Questions on the American "Gulag" for Historian Kate Brown
Posted on Friday, September 22, 2006. Kate Brown is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her book, A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland won the American Historical Association's George Louis Beer Prize. As a historian of Soviet history, she has sifted through an array of declassified NKVD and KGB documents about the abuse of prisoners in the Gulag. Her article, "Out of Solitary Confinement: The History of the Gulag," will be published in Kritika vol. 8, no. 1 (Winter 2007). Brown recently answered a series of questions about the American penal and detention system, especially as it has developed post-9/11. By Ken Silverstein.
Amerikan Police State
Amerikan Police State
Six Questions on the American "Gulag" for Historian Kate Brown
Posted on Friday, September 22, 2006. Kate Brown is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her book, A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland won the American Historical Association's George Louis Beer Prize. As a historian of Soviet history, she has sifted through an array of declassified NKVD and KGB documents about the abuse of prisoners in the Gulag. Her article, "Out of Solitary Confinement: The History of the Gulag," will be published in Kritika vol. 8, no. 1 (Winter 2007). Brown recently answered a series of questions about the American penal and detention system, especially as it has developed post-9/11. By Ken Silverstein.
Sources1. In 2005, Amnesty International charged that the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo makes the prison "the Gulag of our times." After public outcry and a media attack, Amnesty retracted the charge. Is the metaphor appropriate?

Soviet arrests were designed to inspire terror. Some people were taken off the street. Others were surprised in their beds in late night roundups. In Soviet prisons, detainees were stripped, searched, and led into special rooms where they were told to face the wall and assume stress positions. Most people were rounded up with no real evidence and without prior investigation. Interrogators withheld food, water, medical assistance, communication with relatives, and sleep until detainees agreed to talk. The most resistant detainees were beaten while handcuffed or tied.

Granted such liberty in dealing with prisoners, some Soviet officers started to enjoy themselves. They made up games, forcing prisoners to dance, smearing glue on their heads, stripping them naked, pouring frigid water over them. Sometimes guards had too much fun and a prisoner died. Then prison-appointed doctors, who often participated in the interrogations, wrote up fictive autopsy reports. Declassified FBI and U.S. Army detailing abuses detainees in U.S. detention centers uncannily echo Soviet NKVD reports. They recount late-night roundups of civilians and describe prisoners held in chambers of extreme heat or cold, chained naked to the floor without food and water for days on end, defecating on themselves, beaten (some to death), forced to dance, to lick their shoes and body parts, to crawl around, and to bark like dogs. American doctors and psychiatrists helped devise methods of inflicting pain and fear to elicit confessions, and they signed false reports when detainees died in custody.

2. Didn't the Soviets lock up far greater numbers of people than are now being detained by the United States?

Indeed, American editorialists grounded their rejection of the Gulag metaphor in numbers. Soviet officials routed millions through the Gulag over several decades (3.7 million according to archival records). In the American case, we are talking about a mere 500 prisoners in Guantanamo, and roughly 30,000 in U.S. detention centers in Iraq. Human Rights Watch estimates that 50,000 people are currently held in domestic prisons without charges. It is undoubtedly true that the torture of tens of thousands is better than the torture of millions. But this defense becomes rather weak, not only if one believes in universal civil liberties and human rights, but also if one considers history. The methods of detention and interrogation used by investigators in Iraq and Cuba derive from CIA manuals issued in 1963 that assumed that the detainee would not be a Muslim extremist but a Soviet agent. The methods practiced and propagated during the Cold War have migrated to the "war on terror" so seamlessly that American soldiers photographed their human-rights violations and shared the photos with no idea they were incriminating themselves.

3. How does the American system compare with the Soviet in respect for due process and legal norms, and in terms of punishment and the treatment of prisoners?

Both Soviet and American laws banned torture of prisoners, guaranteed habeas corpus, and limited the range of punishments a prisoner could receive. In both countries, abuses occurred nonetheless—not in isolated instances, but in the "migration" of practices across great distances, which suggests systemic violations of the laws.

We know, in fact, about Soviet and American abuses in astonishing detail because government investigators went to prisons with notebook and camera and emerged appalled at what they saw. The purpose of those investigations, one would imagine, would be to expose illegal detention and torture in order to stop it. But despite the nearly annual Soviet investigations into abuses, the Gulag continued unhindered for nearly three decades. Despite FBI and Army investigations in Iraq and Cuba, the White House persists in justifying the use of secret CIA prisons in undisclosed foreign locations to sequester terrorist suspects without charge. Rather than exposing abuses in order to end them, official Soviet and American investigations served the purpose of placing the blame for institutionalized abuse on individuals—U.S. Army privates, Soviet prison guards, and NKVD security officers. Finding individuals to blame absolved the governments which had set up the conditions for torture. Scapegoating individuals also enabled Soviet and American ideologues to reiterate yet again their societies' commitment to justice and civil rights, despite all evidence to the contrary.

4. The Bush Administration is targeting non-citizens it accuses of being terrorists. Didn't the Soviets mostly imprison and abuse their own citizens? So isn't it true that, in the American case, the "gulag" is a response to a real or perceived national security threat, while the Soviets were simply seeking to crush dissent?

During the Cold War the idea arose that the Gulag was primarily an instrument of terror to crush dissent. But declassified Soviet documents do not bear this out. By far, most of the people who landed in the Gulag were there for garden-variety offenses: theft of property, assault, hooliganism, and white-collar crime. They were not influential intellectuals who posed a threat to the regime, but poor, uneducated, and culturally marginalized peasants who broke draconian laws in order to make a living. The search for terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan has also targeted the weak and vulnerable. United States Army officials admit that 90 percent of the civilians detained in Iraq were later released without charges. The dragnet in Afghanistan also seems to have netted civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The detention of people who turn out to be innocent bystanders gives a new definition to the phrase "non-combatants."

5. Have American government officials been more willing to take responsibility for abuses than their Soviet counterparts?

Long after the abuses were made public, Vice President Dick Cheney denied any mistreatment of detainees at Guantánamo. He said that the detainees "have been well treated, treated humanely and decently," adding, "Occasionally there are allegations of mistreatment, but if you trace those back, in nearly every case, it turns out to come from somebody who had been inside and released to their home country and now are peddling lies about how they were treated." With his bald-faced denial of torture, Cheney illustrated how Guantánamo shares aspects of the Gulag. His performance mimicked that of the famed Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, who several months after smiling broadly for a photo in front of the notorious Solovetsky Labor Camp, lied with sanctimony when refuting reports of Soviet camp abuses. In an article published in Pravda on March 5, 1931, Gorky wrote that "convict labor" was "a petty, foul slander" aimed at economically isolating and weakening the USSR. "The Soviet regime," Gorky said, "does not employ convict labor even in prisons."

When a state goes to the trouble of sanctioning the torture of civilians for purposes of political control, government officials do not willingly own up to these practices. And those who expose abuse are discredited as slanderers, and accused of "peddling lies" and ultimately of abetting the enemy.

6. Does the tolerance for abuses committed during the "war on terrorism" have any implications for the health of democracy at home?

The President's broad new powers in the signing statements that enable him to override Congress have corroded the American system of checks and balances. American law enforcement agencies can now wiretap American civilians and detain citizens and permanent residents without charges, and consequently without evidence. Last week the House passed legislation to build a 700-mile Israeli-style fence on the U.S.-Mexico border and to deploy there many of the surveillance technologies tested in Iraq. Perhaps the domestic installation of wartime technologies and military surveillance in civilian settings has become acceptable to us because we have become accustomed, as Soviet citizens did during the endless Stalinist purges, to open-ended wars—wars with no opening salvo and no concluding treaty. Whether or not one agrees that American detention centers and secret prisons are the "Gulag of our time," the comparison deserves serious consideration. It might help us shine a torch into the dark corners of repression, where the totalitarian qualities of our own society lurk, before the scale of violence ascends to Gulag dimensions.

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