Commentary Magazine


Another Washington Toilet Scandal

Are we facing another scandal akin to Abu Ghraib or, at the very least, Guantanamo? The front page of the New York Times carries a story depicting a “secretive American detention center” at Bagram in Afghanistan that has been plagued by “political, legal, and security problems.” The Red Cross has complained to the Pentagon about dozens of prisoners “held incommunicado for weeks or even months in a previously undisclosed warren of isolation cells.” American “human-rights” lawyers have already filed federal suits on behalf of these men.

Who are these detainees? The same story tells us that of the 630 or so in captivity at Bagram most are Taliban fighters captured on the battlefield. Thirty are non-Afghan, i.e., foreign fighters, in other words, members of al Qaeda. The facility is described by the Times as “primarily a repository for more dangerous prisoners captured in Afghanistan.”

These prisoners were supposed to be transferred to a refurbished prison facility, Pul-i-Charkhi, under Afghan control. But according to Red Cross officials this prison has “a significant flaw.” It seems that initially men were held in cells of eight and the only toilets available were in a public place at the end of a corridor.

This arrangement proved inadequate: “To improve security and hygiene, the Americans equipped each two-man cell in the new block with its own toilet.”

But this arrangement also proved inadequate: “because the cultural modesty of Afghan men would make them uncomfortable sharing an open toilet, it was subsequently decided that the prisoners should be held individually.” This had the effect reducing the prison’s projected capacity from 670 to 330.

These details about the toilets raise several questions:

Is the absence of private toilets at Bagram one of the features that has led to the Red Cross complaints and the lawsuits in federal court?

Are Americans less culturally modest than Afghans? Do American prisons provide the same of level privacy that “dangerous prisoners” in Afghanistan are given to enjoy?

These are some little dots that, in light of this latest prison scandal, remain to be connected.