Saturday, August 27, 2005

Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Justice

Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu Al-Hakim, despite their names, are Chinese. They wouldn’t call themselves that, however. They are ethnic Uighurs*, from what they call East Turkistan. Uighurs are generally pro-American because they have experienced religious persecution in China. Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu Al-Hakim are Muslims. Fate threw them together and the United States has kept them together since then.

In 2001, they fled China and set out for Turkey in hopes of finding work. Then came 9/11. They were in Pakistan when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. We had a bounty on “terrorists” — $5000 a head. Someone in Pakistan saw $10,000 of easy money, tipped off the U.S.; and we bought them in January of 2002.

They were sent first to Kandahar and then Guantanamo, where they are now. A few months ago, they finally had their day in court, albeit a secret military proceeding, and they were found innocent.
In secret trials, however, even the verdict is secret. Their lawyer, Sabin Willet, learned of the ruling only last month, and only because he finally had a chance to meet his clients. They were restrained by leg irons bolted to the floor — for Willet’s protection, of course. Having been cleared, Qassim and Al-Hakim could not understand why they were still in prison.

The government contends, rightly, that we cannot return them to persecution in China; and, reportedly, that no other country will take them. However, I can think of at least one country that could take them; there are Uighers in the United States. But we won’t. We won’t even release them to live in the civilian community at Guantanamo. We won’t let them phone their families. The administration argues that the president’s war powers include the power to hold and release suspected enemy combatants in an appropriate fashion. The catch, of course, is that Qassim and Al-Hakim are not and have never been enemy combatants. A military tribunal found that they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

They still are.

* Pronounced wee’gur, it is also spelled Uygher, Uyghur, and Uygur

Bookmarks — Looking for a Ship

Looking for a Ship is John McPhee’s short and beautifully written account of life aboard a merchant ship. He sailed on the S.S. Stella Lykes during a 42-day run down the Atlantic coast of the United States, through the Panama Canal, and on to South America. Along the way, he learned about navigation systems, cribbing horses, storms, stowaways, Charles Darwin, shipwrecks, and the lives of the men in the merchant marine. Any paragraph can become a point of departure. Consider this passage:

…the ship itself was making money running slow, because we were ahead of schedule. Seventy-one revolutions per minute. Fifteen knots. Undertime. Even so, she was consuming a gallon of bunker fuel every five seconds, a barrel every three and a half minutes. Three hundred thousand dollars had bought enough fuel to get us from Charleston to Chile and back. Mac said, “When we get up to maximum speed is when she just drinking like water.” The captain never goes higher than eighty-eight r.p.m., which makes about nineteen knots. Andy looked up from his weather reports, and his fingers began to tap a calculator. That would be fifty-nine gallons a mile, he told us — seventeen thousandths of a mile per gallon.

That got me thinking. Ninety feet per gallon is actually pretty good mileage — or perhaps I should say, footage. A luxury liner gets about thirty feet per gallon. Conventionally powered warships at flank speed get less than that. An Abrams tank with a gas turbine engine travels about 1,700 feet on a gallon of fuel. A tank with a diesel engine gets nearly one mile per gallon. When the U.S. prepares for war, fuel makes up 70% of cargo tonnage. Racing across the sand and flying above it during Desert Storm, U.S. forces consumed well over one million gallons of fuel per day.

History is often closer than we think, and McPhee’s book reminded me that I already knew another interesting detail about the Lykes Line that I acquired from a very different body of work. In 1959, a Marine radar operator defected to the Soviet Union. He reached Russia by way Finland, and he reached Finland by sailing aboard the S.S. Marion Lykes. He bought his ticket at the Lykes Line offices in the New Orleans International Trade Mart. When he re-defected to the United States, the State Department loaned him the money to travel. In 1963, he was accused of killing the President of the United States and was executed in the basement of the Dallas police station. Maybe you’ve heard of him.