I had the occasion to do some research on the Dreyfus Affaire last semester while taking a French class at SUNY Plattsburgh. As I learned about the man and the event that nearly tore France asunder 100 years ago, I was struck by some of the parallels to our own time and the lessons we might draw from it today. Alfred Dreyfus was born into a well-respected German Jewish family, but later became a French citizen and highly decorated military officer. However and abruptly, he was wrongly accused of treason in 1898--the ultimate crime against the Republic--and condemned to a lifetime of solitary confinement off the coast of South America. He lived on Devil's Island "as from the grave", he told his wife in a letter, under a system of punishment created especially for him.
Most Frenchmen at the time were not disturbed that Dreyfus was tried before a closed military court and convicted on the flimsiest of evidence. Most felt that no punishment could be too harsh. But in his defense, the renowned French writer Emile Zola published "J'accuse!" on January 13, 1898, an open letter to the French President in which he named the officers guilty of treason, cover-up and anti-Semitism, and blasted the tribunal for condemning the accused on the strength of secret evidence. He spared no harshness for his fellow citizens, decrying that "The Nation is struck dumb...the people yield...". He warned that the Republic was "threatened by the most disgraceful, the most indelible of stains--this abominable Dreyfus Affaire". He declared it his duty to speak and wrote, "My nights are haunted by the spectre of an innocent man who expires over there, under the most ghastly tortures, for a crime he did not commit".
Today, it is our nation that is threatened by the spectre of hundreds who expire without accusation or trial, under scientifically designed and tested brutality at the US Naval Base at Guatanamo Bay. None of the more than 700 individuals ever imprisoned there since this very date in 2002 have been charged or tried in an open court of law. If brought before a U.S. military tribunal, the accused are not allowed legal counsel, knowledge of the classified evidence against them, or the right to call witnesses, other than fellow detainees, to testify on their behalf.
Despite President Bush's insistence that these detentions are necessary to keep the homeland safe, hundreds were not captured anywhere near a battlefield nor involved in hostile acts against us. Many were swept up in the grab for wealth and power promised in fliers dropped over Afghan- istan and Pakistan. The government admits that it has been holding innocent civilians for nearly four years and that only 10 out of more than 700 prisoners are considered "high value detainees".
Five years have passed since the arrival of the first 20 men on our Devil's Island.+ Have we, too, yielded, to presidential claims of authority to determine what constitutes torture and who can be denied the rights and protections guaranteed by law and any reasonable notion of decency? Are we, too, dumbstruck in the name of fear and national defense?
Guantanamo is but the most visible sign of the human rights abuses committed by our government in its "war on terror". Just as the Dreyfus Affair became a symbol of the moral fate of the French Republic, what we allow today regarding Guantanamo will set our course as a nation and determine who we are as a people for generations to come. Our duty now is to serve our country and humanity. Our duty now is to speak.