Writing in this morning's Washington Post, former Soviet dissident Pavel Litvinov not only points up the disservice inherent in Amnesty International's recent comparison of the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay with Soviet gulags, but also offers a brief account of the challenges repression makes to memory.
"[I]ncidents of desecration of the Koran in Guantanamo by U.S. personnel have been widely reported. But those Korans were surely not brought to Guantanamo by the prisoners themselves from Afghanistan. They were supplied by the U.S. administration -- in spite of the obvious fact that most of the prisoners misguidedly found in the Koran the inspiration for their violent hatred of the United States.
By contrast, Russian author Andrei Sinyavsky, who was sentenced in 1966 to seven years' forced labor for his writing, was approached one evening soon after his arrival in a labor camp by a prisoner who quietly asked Sinyavsky whether he wanted to listen to a recital of the biblical account of the apocalypse. (Possession of a Bible was strictly prohibited in the gulag.) The man took Sinyavsky to the furnace room, where a group of people were squatting in the dark recesses. In the light of the furnace flame, one of the men got up and started to recite the biblical passages by heart. When he stopped, the stoker, an old man, said: "And now you, Fyodor, continue." Fyodor got up and recited from the next chapter. The whole text of the Bible was distributed among these prisoners, ordinary Russians who were spending 10 to 25 years in the gulag for their religious beliefs. They knew the texts by heart and met regularly to repeat them so that they would not forget. And this happened in 1967, when the gulag had become smaller and the Soviet regime milder than it had been under Stalin.
. . .There is ample reason for Amnesty to be critical of certain U.S. actions. But by using hyperbole and muddling the difference between repressive regimes and the imperfections of democracy, Amnesty's spokesmen put its authority at risk. U.S. human rights violations seem almost trifling in comparison with those committed by Cuba, South Korea, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
The most effective way to criticize U.S. behavior is to frankly acknowledge that this country should be held to a higher standard based on its own Constitution, laws and traditions. We cannot fulfill our responsibilities as the world's only superpower without being perceived as a moral authority. Despite the risks posed by terrorism, the United States cannot indefinitely detain people considered dangerous without appropriate safeguards for their conditions of detention and periodic review of their status. Words are important. When Amnesty spokesmen use the word "gulag" to describe U.S. human rights violations, they allow the Bush administration to dismiss justified criticism and undermine Amnesty's credibility. Amnesty International is too valuable to let it be hijacked by politically biased leaders."