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.
The pre-trial hearing for alleged Wikileaks source Bradley Manning began on Friday, nineteen months after his arrest, including eight months in solitary confinement.
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.