A lot of folks on the right are frothing at the mouth over Amnesty International’s characterization of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay as a “gulag” recently. Did you know that “gulag” is actually an acronym? It’s from Russian “Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh LAGerey” which translates to “Chief Directorate of Corrective Labour Camps” in English, even though the term is typically applied to a single camp and not the whole set. Anyway, the outrage seems to be based on the fact that the Soviet gulags were much worse than Guantanamo Bay, but is that the only standard by which we should evaluate the accuracy of the term? What are the salient features of gulags? What do people think of when they hear the term?

  • The Soviet gulags were part of a system of isolated detention facilities (an “archipelago” as Solzhenitsyn put it) hidden from normal means of oversight. The US system of detention facilities including Guantanamo Bay, Bagram in Afghanistan, and Abu Ghraib in Iraq shares this feature.
  • The gulags were places that people were sent and held without due process. Check.
  • Treatment of detainees in the gulags defied established norms of treatment for either domestic prisoners or foreign combatants, being instead subject to special rules unique to that system. Check.
  • People were often sent to gulags for reasons that were primarily political, not criminal or martial as those terms would normally be understood. I’ll give a little and say it’s unclear whether this is true for the US system.
  • The conditions in the Soviet gulags were abysmal and shocking, leading to massive death and suffering. I think we can all agree that – even if every report of abuse and even torture that we hear is true – this is not generally the case for the US system.

That looks like three and a half out of five to me. I think the focus only on the last of these items, to the exclusion of the other four, is no more than an attempt to distract attention from the fact that the US detention-facility does in fact have a lot in common with the Soviet gulags. No, they’re not nearly as bad, but they are facilities of the same general type and purpose. Amnesty’s comparison is therefore valid in a purely dispassionate sense, though perhaps it was still ill considered because of the emotive content that the term conveys. It’s kind of like comparisons to Hitler; some such comparisons are actually valid, but they’re rarely useful. Both Amnesty and their critics would do well to stop making such appeals to emotion and concentrate on rational debate about detention policies.