“In the gallows sways the future”

Three prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have killed themselves, the first to die after many other attempts. Some make much of the coordinations of the deaths; the camp commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris dubbed it “asymmetric warfare,” quite the buzzword today. He said they had no regard for their own lives or anyone’s and that doesn’t sound true.
Americans have known this calculus of life and liberty, and it just doesn’t refer to taking up arms and invating other countries. Christians, too, knowing that personal life is smaller than life poured out. If the roles were reversed, the three at Guantanamo would be called heros or martyrs. If they were held in the United States, or got due process, or if the Administration was transparent in its accusations or cooperative with our allies on this point, I could chalk up the suicides to the usual if harrowing ways of prison life. But that’s not the case and I won’t.New Hampshire

And this isn’t an issue of who I like. I may or may not have like the men who died, or any of those at Guantanamo. They are so remote from normal human society that who’s to say what the prisoners are or were. I’m sure I woudn’t want to live in a land governed as they would want. I certainly don’t like President Bush or his apparatchiks, and fear for our land as he would have it run. So I’ll focus on the long term, and if there is a “war on terror” it is a war of ideas, and the United States is losing.

So let me be plain. Between the base commander and the dead men, I understand viscerally and spiritually the dead men better. After years of incarceration — however humane; as if that alters one iota the basic deprevation of freedom — without hope of end, I would gladly die, especially if it pressures the United States to close the base. And if I hadn’t been a violent radical before, I might have become one by that point. This lesson can’t be lost on millions who see confirmation that the US as the Great Bully and Great Consumer; apart from anything else, Guantanamo is a strategic liability. It can only produce martyrs.

As a Christian, I understand the appeal of martyrs, even if they’ve become unfashionable. Every slight and inconvenience does not a martyr make. All those whining Evangelicals who claim the badge should just sit down and read Foxe’s Book, and pray forgiveness for their hubris. When I heard the news, my mind immediately lept to the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” because of its reference to gallows. I suppose the temptation in this hymn is to associate the “light of buring martyrs” with whatever the singer thinks is right, but rightness is not a personal, domestic possession to be held over everyone else in the world. With that comes the death of liberality and the death of the hope of peace.

So this morning, in my silent prayer, I will remember alike the President and militiant Islamicists, whether they are in captivity or not, and pray a blessing upon their souls and complete frustration of their plans.

Image: Wikipedia “List of U.S. state license plates” issued under the GPL.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I do think the term “assymetrical warfare” has uses — better than the means-all/means-nothing term “terrorist attack” where applicable — but it is just a knee-jerk delusion here. I would have accepted its use had the dead men, say, attacked guards and then killed themselves. But that’s not what happened, and discovering that one of the three was scheduled for transfer makes the whole matter worse.

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