Have you been waiting for an American version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—a searing account of life in the American Gulag? Well, according to the New York Times Book Review, your wait is over. Rush right out and pick your own copy of Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak.
To be sure, the Times’s reviewer, Wellesley professor Dan Chiasson, admits that the poems may be somewhat lacking in artistic merit. But, hey, he suggests, you gotta make allowances:
It is hard to imagine a reader so hardhearted as to bring aesthetic judgment to bear on a book written by men in prison without legal recourse, several of them held in solitary confinement, some of them likely subjected to practices that many disinterested parties have called torture. You don’t read this book for pleasure; you read it for evidence. And if you are an American citizen you read it for evidence of the violence your government is doing to total strangers in a distant place, some of whom (perhaps all of whom, since without due process how are we to tell?) are as innocent of crimes against our nation as you are.
Chiasson may be carrying his anti-Bush paranoia a wee bit far, given that the Gitmo detainees now include such charming characters as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of the 9/11 plot. I have yet to hear even the most ardent critic of the administration suggest that KSM is actually innocent.
But Chiasson seems to be writing from an alternative reality—call it Planet Academia—where the Gitmo detainees are not the world’s most vicious terrorists but, rather, political prisoners of a repressive American regime akin to Stalinist Russia. The only thing he can’t seem to figure is why Amerika, that bastion of fascism, would allow these poor souls to publish their writings: “imagine a volume of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry released by the Soviet government in 1938, or an anthology of poems by Japanese internment prisoners released by our government during the Second World War.” He speculates, rather cunningly, that this might actually be a plot by the U.S. government “to make Guantánamo and our abuses there unfold on an abstract ‘literary’ plane rather than in real life and real time,” and thereby to lessen our horror at what is transpiring behind the prison walls.
For my part, I have trouble figuring out why the Times editors would publish what amounts to a parody of liberal antiwar hysteria. Could it be that the dictator in the White House ordered the Times to run this essay in order to confine the antiwar activists to “an abstract literary plane” and thereby to hold them up to general public ridicule?