shut it down already (easier said than done)

Are you a journalist?

“No…”

“Oh, so you’re just a question-asker.”

I nodded somewhat sheepishly as the Witness Against Torture member walked away. Yet despite the sense of awkwardness it produced in me, his statement was one of the most succinct summaries of my personality; it was precisely my desire to know that propelled me towards Saturday’s “Make Guantanamo History” rally marking the 12th anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo prison camp. (Yeah, that’s me photobombing. Oops.)

I didn’t plan to be there. I learned of the protest less than 24 hours before it began, and I wasn’t even sure what Guantanamo was until the evening before, when I watched the documentary Doctors of the Dark Side. Simple in cinematography, the film focuses on the application of medicine and psychology in “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a fancy synonym for torture. As I absorbed the images and words from the film, I was inundated with deep sorrow and bewilderment – a sinking sensation in my spirit at the gross distortion of the Imago Dei.

What drives an ordinary person to willingly inflict torture upon a fellow human being? What justifies the use of psychological and psychiatric expertise to not heal but to break?

In my short existence of twenty-odd years, I’ve never encountered a social justice issue that seemed as black-and-white as torture. To me, the extraction of information is not compelling enough of a reason for inflicting physical and psychological damage upon an individual, no matter how “guilty” he or she may be for a crime. But seeing as few things in life are clear cut, I need to unpack this a little further.

For one, I am seeing only patches of the big picture. I do not know the coherent story behind the establishment and maintenance of Guantanamo. Indeed, when I bombarded another Witness Against Torture member with questions that perhaps had too much angst for small talk (i.e. “WHY IS GUANTANAMO STILL OPEN IF IT’S CLEARLY INEFFECTIVE AND DEHUMANIZING?”), he shrugged and said, “There are political forces that prevent the President from shutting it down.”

I wanted to slap him.

But the man has a point. Any given issue – be it torture, mass incarceration, academic tracking – is tangled up in the interests of multiple stakeholders: politicians, private firms, homeowners, etc. The web of competing interests sways towards the ones that hold more weight (in other words, power). Surely there are political and economic forces beyond my comprehension that support the status quo and block progress. The President should not be the object of blame.

In the passionate spirit of the rally, I tweeted at the President: “you CAN do more #closegitmo”. Almost immediately afterwards, I wish I hadn’t. What I didn’t know was that on December 26, while I was still recovering from food coma from Christmas, President Obama was busy signing the 2014 Defense Authorization Act, and he said, “I have repeatedly called upon the Congress to work with my Administration to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” (emphasis mine). He emphasized the need to bring the prosecution of the detainees under the authority of the executive branch and to try them in domestic courts.

So, if even the leader of the world’s most powerful state can’t shut down Guantanamo, what is holding him back? I’m sure political scientists can give much better answers than I, so I will briefly consider some opinions I’ve gathered.

One thing that’s keeping Guantanamo open is an inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to accept the definition of torture. Take force-feeding as an example. Opponents against Guantanamo consider force-feeding a form of torture as it not only inflicts physical pain but also usurps the autonomy of the individual. Descriptions of and reasons for force-feeding at Guantanamo seem to violate international law’s stance on torture as “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.”

Yet in a Washington Post column from July 2013, Marc Thiesen wrote that force-feeding at Guantanamo is not torture but is merely “common procedure used thousands of times a day by doctors and nurses in hospitals across the United States.” He also stated that “many of the detainees refusing food at Guantanamo are not doing so voluntarily but are under pressure from terrorist leaders inside the camp” and that “force-feeding prevents forced suicide.”

Mr. Thiesen’s words may be true to a certain extent, but they address the issue of torture only at the surface. We need to venture deeper into Guantanamo, for force-feeding is but one manifestation of the horrors of Guantanamo: it is a response to a mass hunger strike by inmates, who were protesting the prison’s substandard living conditions and arbitrary confinement of hundreds of men, which were perpetuated by doctors and other people supposedly working for the common good, which has been jeopardized for the sake of the security and well-being of the United States of America.

The atrocities at Guantanamo are public knowledge, so it’s not public scorn or an immediate threat of delegitimization that’s holding back the U.S. government. Rather, it is in part an issue of power and privilege: the combined military, political and economic leverage of the U.S. empowers it to determine its own terms of conduct. Understandably, the U.S. initially sought out terrorists in response to 9/11 for the sake of its security. The lives and assets of American families were deeply affected, and the government would’ve lost legitimacy in the world if it hadn’t reacted aggressively.

But that was 12 years ago.

And as the years passed and more and more people learned of the injustices at Guantanamo, the prison remained open. Because American lives have been deemed more worthy than Yemeni lives or Afghani lives or Pakistani lives. Because the life of an American citizen is counted more important than the life of Shaker Aamer, a Saudi Arabian man who is a British resident and was never tried for a crime. Shaker Aamer is just one of over 70 men held under indefinite detention at Guantanamo. Because of the U.S.’s power and privilege in the world, it gets to protect national security even if it means violating international law, and it gets to violate international law without penalty at the expense of justice.

To be honest, I don’t know where to go from here, and this isn’t even 10% of the iceberg. All I want are answers, but all I’ve got are questions.

So I lift up these prophetic words of hope that were proclaimed at the rally:

SOMEWHERE, there is justice.

But it’s not where Shaker Aamer cannot be a father. It can’t survive force-feeding. And yet it is born rebellious, in every breath the detainees are breathing.

And so we stand here believing that somewhere, justice serenades the sky.

There is a sacred space where all human rights are respected, and we acknowledge that all life is connected, that all life is sacred, and it cannot be strapped down, and justice can’t be taken.

If your fist tightens, if your heart is breaking, it’s because justice might be hooded.

Well, one day, it will awaken.

– adapted from a poem read at the Make Guantanamo History rally

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