‘Detainees?’ Why not just call them ‘prisoners?’

Today, reading about the latest on Gitmo and torture and prosecutions and so forth, I reached my saturation point on the word “detainees.”

Personally, I’m not too squeamish to go ahead and call them “prisoners.” Why don’t we just go ahead and do that? We’ve been holding some of these people since 2001, and many of them we don’t ever intend to let go (and if we do, we’re crazy). So why not “prisoners?”

Yes, I get it that their legal status is unsettled, and in U.S. crime-and-punishment parlance we generally save “prisoner” for someone duly convicted to spend time in a “prison,” which is an institution we distinguish from jails where people await trial or holding cells where they await bail or whatever.

But if we can’t be honest enough to say that Gitmo is a prison and they are prisoners, whatever the technicalities, could we please come up with something that sounds a little less prissy, somewhat less a-tiptoe, than “detainees?”

Whenever I hear the term, I picture a Victorian gentleman saying “Pardon me, sir, but I must detain you for a moment…”

Whose sensibilities are we overprotecting by the use of this word? Those who feel like the “detainees'” “rights” are being trampled? Those like me who are glad we have a secure place to put some of these people? (Hey, go ahead and close Gitmo if you’d like. That’s what Obama says he’ll do and it’s what McCain would have done, too. Fine. But find someplace just as secure to put the ones we need to hang onto.)

Maybe we could sort out all the rest of the mess — the legal status, the security issues, who should interrogate and how, whom to keep and whom to send home and whom to send to a third location, whether any of our own should be prosecuted, etc. — if we started by coming up with something less mealy-mouthed to call these people.

7 thoughts on “‘Detainees?’ Why not just call them ‘prisoners?’

  1. doug_ross

    How about “unindicted co-conspirators”?

    Does it even give you a moment’s pause to consider that one or more of the “detainees” may not be guilty of any actual crime?

  2. Brad Warthen

    I don’t see what in the world that has to do with it. Whether they’re guilty as Satan or innocent as a lamb, they’re prisoners. Seems like if you wanted to make the point that some could be innocent, you’d want to emphasize that they are prisoners as you stoke your outrage.

    I just can’t see any legitimate reason for anyone, from any point of view (other than perhaps someone in the government who is afraid of getting in technical trouble for using the accurate, descriptive word, someone who has a vested interest in dissembling), to tiptoe around the fact that they are prisoners.

  3. doug_ross

    The fact that you are more bothered by the word to describe people who may or may not be guilty of unspecified crimes rather than why there hasn’t been any real attempt to try and sort out the good detainees from the bad prisoners is quite odd.

    If they are innocent (which I am not saying they are — but some WERE), then the best word to use might be hostages.

    Or call them “internees”, as that seemed to work for the people of Japanese descent who were locked up for years for no reason during WWII.

    It’s long overdue to sort this out. Hold trials and be done with it.

  4. Brad Warthen

    “Detainees” just seems, I don’t know… DAINTY. Like we can’t say what it is…

    By the way, my daughter the lawyer has explained the difference between the technical meanings of “detainee” and “prisoner,” which I appreciate. But I’m just talking about plain, generic language, not legal definitions. I don’t think Patrick McGoohan had been convicted in that TV show, but they still called it “The Prisoner,” because that’s what he was, de facto.

  5. Lee Muller

    I am shocked, shocked, that Brad watches libertarian television, such as “The Prisoner”.

    None of it seemed to stick.
    Try watching it again, this time not for diversion.

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