More on Graffy and the Guantanamo Suicides

by Peggy McGuinness

I can understand Roger’s desire to defend his former colleague, Colleen Graffy, whose ill-considered comments compounded the diplomatic problem facing the U.S. following the suicide of two Saudis and one Yemeni at Guantanamo last weekend. But there is little there to defend. Certainly the administration did not think so. The State Department distanced itself from Graffy’s remarks with lightening speed after the massive public fallout overseas. Spokesman Sean McCormack noted, “I would just point out in public that we do not see it (the suicides) as a PR stunt. We have a serious concern anytime anyone takes their own life.” The Defense Department also rebuked Graffy; Deputy Assistant Secretary for Detainee Affairs, Cully Stimson said, “I wouldn’t characterize it is as a good PR move.”

Graffy’s attempt to equate suicide by detainees kept in solitary detention for several years with suicide bombers who kill others when they take their own lives is off base. (By the way, the full audio link is available on the BBC radio website here.) The key complete quote:

Taking their own lives was not necessary, but it certainly is a good PR move. It does sound like this is part of a strategy – in that they don’t value their own lives, and they certainly don’t value ours; and they use suicide bombings as a tactic.


Bombings that kill other people are tactical. Suicides by detainees being held for years with no reasonable probability of a public trial or eventual release are, almost by definition, neither tactical nor strategic.

The damage of Graffy’s remarks was done almost as soon as she uttered them, fueling rumors throughout the Arab and muslim world that the deaths were not suicides at all. Now, to be fair, even without Graffy’s statement, the rumors that the deaths resulted from abuse would likely have be aroused. After all, didn’t we all reasonably believe that the US military could keep a Gitmo detainee from slowly hanging himself? As wrong as such a reasonable belief turned out to be, it is completely understandable and very predictable. Graffy is one of the top officials in charge of public diplomacy at State. She should have known better.

The fact that the three suicides appear coordinated suggests that they were planned, and they may well have been thought by the detainees, as Roger argues, to be part of Jihad. But if the suicides were part of a jihadist plan, the fact that they took place is even more disturbing. The guards at Guantanamo — which we are told by the administration houses the “worst of the worst” — could not keep these charges alive? If these are committed jihadists, and suicide is one of their tactics, why are we allowing them to further their cause? What more evidence do we need to shut down the Gitmo operation immediately?

I am setting aside, for now, the question whether the US has an obligation under international humanitarian and human rights law to prevent detainees from committing suicide. (This is an interesting question, which has been raised in a different context by human rights lawyers alarmed at the suicides among immigration detainees — who are frequently held indefinitely without an opportunity for a public hearing — in the UK and Australia.)

Comments are open, to give readers a chance to weigh in on this issue.

http://opiniojuris.org/2006/06/17/more-on-graffy-and-the-guantanamo-suicides/

7 Responses

  1. Peggy,

    I don’t have much more to add from my previous post. I think Graffy’s “PR move” comment was regrettable and unfortunate. But I doubt she herself would have chosen that phrase if she could repeat the live interview. But all of us who have done radio or television, or indeed taught countless hours in the classroom, understand that there will be the occasional ill chosen phrase. Of course, Graffy got the job in part because she has spent hundreds of hours doing European radio and television, and there is a higher expectation that State Department spokespersons get it right. Having known her for years, I know she is well-equipped to handle herself quite ably on live radio and television.

    But just how harmful was the interview? We don’t really know. Calling a suicide a PR stunt sounds callous and insensitive, but she did not use those exact words. She said it was a strategy, a tactic, and was a good PR move by the detainees. Her interview certainly underscored the highly plausible argument that these individuals took their lives as a strategic tactic to fight the United States. Given what has been disclosed about these individuals that is certainly believable.

    As for the final point, we may be moving into very strange and unchartered territory here. The terrorists are trying to fight the United States by using surprising techniques like killing innocent civilians. We have fought for years to prevent their suicide bombs from killing others. But apparently we must now fight the enemy from killing themselves.

    I agree that we must now assume that many if not most detainees may be willing to commit suicide and that those individuals should be on suicide watch. I don’t know the precise details of how one monitors every detainee for a suicide watch. Reports indicate that there have been previous attempts to commit suicide by detainees and those efforts have been thwarted. There has not be a single successful suicide at Guantanamo Bay until now. Attempts to revive these three individuals were made, but they were unsuccessful. If you read Commander Harris’ article about the treatment of detainees and believe him to be credible, you can be sure he is fighting against this sort of tactic.

    Roger Alford

  2. “Given what has been disclosed about these individuals that is certainly believable.”

    Given what the rest of the world feels about Guantanamo and the detention of people in those circumstances, why should we believe a word they say?

  3. Sorry, Prof. Alford, but you’re totally unconvincing. Your entire post on the subject is directed at attempting (but failing) to excuse a former colleague (nice to know about this circumstance from a third party) for having said the inexcusable, on the record, as a senior US government spokesperson. Only after being brough to cause you say “I think Graffy’s “PR move” comment was regrettable and unfortunate”, but then continue to try to excuse her. I’m curious, do the terms full disclosure, bias and intellectual honesty represent anything to you, as an academic?

  4. Randomopinion and bondwoman:

    Thank you for your posts.

    Randomopinion, I find it curious that you (and to lesser degree Peggy) assume that I feel some compulsion to defend a former colleague as if that was the motivation for my post. Obviously academic institutions are quite diverse and if I had so chosen I could have come out in strong opposition to her statement (as did another colleague at my institution on his blog). My position on this particular issue comports with Graffy’s and I raised the issue to highlight what is being lost in the mainstream media’s discussion: that the underlying message that Graffy was articulating was likely true, i.e., that these individuals were in fact committing strategic acts in opposition to the United States. I of course do not assume that I would convince you otherwise, but others may have a more open mind about the issue.

    As for bondwoman, I’m not sure what you are saying. Are we instead to assume that everything the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the military commanders say about Gitmo is false because you “feel” differently about that facility? Are we simply to assume that these three individuals are not involved with terrorist organizations and activities? Are we to assume these individuals took their lives as acts of desperation or, even worse, that they were killed? Given the threat they and their ilk pose to the world and given that their radical ideology does not view death in the way that most of us do, I am inclined to believe that these individuals would be more than willing to commit such acts as a tactic against the United States.

    Roger Alford

  5. Well, I didn’t realise when I wrote it, but I saw more or less exactly the same point echoed in a lengthy and rather damning piece in the Observer this Sunday. The author relates his attempts to get permission to visit Guantanamo last week and then comments: “Yet our bizarre experience raises a fundamental question: when it comes to Guantanamo, can the world believe a single word that Gordon and his numerous cohorts say?” So what I am saying is that the burden lies on the US administration to prove any sort of bona fides in relation to its treatment of the detainees at Guantanamo, and that I will not give them the benefit of believing that they (and indeed you, if you read your own language) can somehow justify this intolerable destruction of the international rule of law because the US feels under threat from people do “not view death in the way that most of us do”. Two wrongs do not make a right, and in behaving in this totally uncivilised way the US has demeaned its own glorious history as a beacon of liberty and fair treatment under the rule of law.

  6. - “I find it curious that you (and to lesser degree Peggy) assume that I feel some compulsion to defend a former colleague as if that was the motivation for my post. Obviously academic institutions are quite diverse and if I had so chosen I could have come out in strong opposition to her statement (as did another colleague at my institution on his blog). (…)”

    Fallacy of the consequent. The fact that you failed to note that Ms. Graffy is a former colleague of yours is the problem, not whether you agree or disagree with her.

    - “(…) My position on this particular issue comports with Graffy’s and I raised the issue to highlight what is being lost in the mainstream media’s discussion: that the underlying message that Graffy was articulating was likely true, i.e., that these individuals were in fact committing strategic acts in opposition to the United States. (…)”

    Circulus in Probando, or begging the question. You try to demonstrate a conclusion by means of premises that pre-suppose that conclusion.

    - “(…) I of course do not assume that I would convince you otherwise, but others may have a more open mind about the issue. (…)”

    Argumentum ad hominem.

    Common, Prof. Alford, after the poll you conducted some weeks ago, you’re aware of the average intellect and qualifications of your readers. Maybe you should show a little bit more of respect.

  7. Sheesh, so they killed themselves, my heart’s breaking. First we have to treat them with kid gloves; then we have to provide them with unheard of habeas rights; now we have to make sure they don’t kill themselves, too. What next? A mandate to make sure they brush their teeth and floss after every meal? For the love of Pete, enough already!! I find it delightfully ironic, too, that various leftists, such as Amnesty Int’l, which I will never give a dime to ever again, are big on the personal rights bandwagon (e.g., abortion [control over one's body], right to die, etc.), but would curiously demand denial [the right to die] to these, ahem, folk when it doesn’t suit their political goals.

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