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Imagining a world without Guantanamo

By Karen J. Greenberg,

Ten years after its opening, mention Guantanamo, and a thousand images emerge. Men in orange jumpsuits wearing goggles, hoods and handcuffs, hunched over in the relentless Caribbean sun; zoo-like cages, exposed to the elements, with nothing but buckets as toilets; secret areas of the prison compound where “enhanced interrogation techniques” were tested; a detainee deprived of sleep, and injected forcibly with fluids to cause swelling, until he broke; men found hanging from ropes in their cells.

What would a world without Guantanamo be like? That’s two questions, really. First, one must imagine a world in which the detention facility had never opened its doors. And, less fanciful, a world in which it closed down now. To begin, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves of what Guantanamo has been and what it means today.

From the start, the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was painted for the public as containing unimaginably bad inmates. White House and military officials insisted that the prisoners there were “the worst of the worst”; former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard Myers described the detainees as almost superhuman — able to “gnaw hydraulic lines” on the airplane bringing them to the facility.

President George W. Bush insisted that there was no rendition-to-torture program, until the day he moved 14 prisoners from the program to the camp, announcing the national security value of interrogating them. Judges, national security officials, prosecutors and other officers of the law insisted that the U.S. court system was too weak to handle such terrible men.

President Obama’s administration has concurred, pushing the closure of Guantanamo further away and buttressing its prognosis for a long life with the banal assertion that there are roughly 48 detainees who will be kept there in “indefinite detention.”

Symbolically, Guantanamo has always had a power far beyond its harboring of captives in the war on terror. For civil libertarians, it represents the rights that the U.S. government violated in the name of that war, most glaringly the tolerance of open-ended detention. For its defenders, Guantanamo marks the United States’ willingness to take the gloves off. Internationally, it is a symbol of the humbling of America. Guantanamo is an invitation for others to say: “See? The United States is just like the rest of us, unable to resist going to the dark side when attacked.”

Guantanamo represents what lies below the surface of America the civilized; it is a window into the lure of the brutal in times of confusion, and a reminder of the forgotten discipline that constitutional democracy requires.

But mostly, Guantanamo is this: It is the place where the United States has decided to collect the universe of post-9/11 moral issues that confound its politicians, laws and people. When in doubt or ignorance, or when just plain challenged by the complexities of national security dilemmas, send the problems to Guantanamo. Don’t know what to do with prisoners captured on the terrorism battlefield? Send them to Guantanamo. Doubtful of the ability of the U.S. courts to try terrorists? Put them in Guantanamo. Anxious about the haunting realities of torture coming to light? Keep those who were tortured at Guantanamo.

So what if we erased all that?

Without Guantanamo, there would be no focal point that so readily called to mind the U.S. role in the war on terror. There would be no one place that encapsulated the errant journey that the nation began in the wake of 9/11, the startling deviation from law and process, from the self-identity of America as law-abiding, confident and fair. The absence of Guantanamo — this one term that evokes so much — would have meant that the United States had not chosen the easy out.

Had there been no Guantanamo, the nation would have had to confront the issues that continue to haunt us: the ability of the Constitution to deal with 21st-century enemies; the strengths and weaknesses of our intelligence services; the uncertainty of who is an enemy and who is not. Without Guantanamo, the country’s leaders would have had to create aboveboard policies that would not have led us into a state of perpetual limbo, now codified by Congress and supported by the president in the form of indefinite detention and military detention for foreign terrorism suspects.

With no Guantanamo, there would still be much to trouble us: the war in Iraq and the lies that got us there, the losses in Afghanistan, the overstepping of the security state into conversations, virtual and otherwise. But there wouldn’t be a glaring badge of shame on the United States. Nor would there be a ready symbol of the country’s willingness to allow national security to trump the rule of law. Without Guantanamo, our moral compass wouldn’t have been so visibly hijacked.

Obama has continued to use Guantanamo as a collection box for the most challenging national security dilemmas. If anything, he has intensified the prison’s role as a catch-all for the confusion of post-9/11 security — as if for each cell emptied of a human being, another is filled with a problem: the use of waterboarding and hearsay, the desire to arrest individuals for association with a terrorist group, the need to have a secondary system of justice, the political attraction of promising Congress that the enemies of the United States will not be allowed onto U.S. soil.

But if we now close Guantanamo, the Pandora’s box of so much that went wrong after 9/11, it would bring to an end the entire era — and with it the anger, frustration, and loss of faith in government and the courts that has lasted a decade. The ignorance that persists, day after day, about who is there and what actual danger they pose to the United States would disappear. Gone would be some of the disappointment with lawmakers who use Guantanamo as a reminder that the nation is beset by threats and thus keep fear alive. Gone would be the emasculation of the U.S. courts as a viable venue for trying terrorism cases.

Could shutting down Guantanamo resolve the legal and moral confusion unleashed by the global war on terror, or would its closure merely be another failed remedy? The answer lies in how it is done. Guantanamo can’t be closed quietly. Rather than just withering away, blanketed in excuses of political constraint and legal complexities, it needs to be shuttered with a clear declaration of rights and wrongs.

Indefinite detention is wrong. Bypassing the courts is wrong. Succumbing to fear until it dominates the law is wrong.

Ultimately, because Guantanamo is a repository not just of prisoners but of America’s confusion, its closure should mark a moment of clarity, and of renewed confidence in our country and the rule of law. Close Guantanamo, and you close the box of sin that the war on terror unleashed, making us, rather than an exceptional nation, one like all the others. Close the box, bury the ills of the past decade, close the doors on a state of limbo and confusion, and America’s true exceptionalism can once again thrive.

Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, is the author of “The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days.”

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