On January 11, 2002, the first prisoners arrived at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. Despite much public objection, calls by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, and several legal battles, we still hold over 400 prisoners in Guantanamo today. We are told that these men are the “worst of the worst”, “obvious threats to national security”, “Islamofascists”, and “terrorists”. We use these epithets to justify our new definitions which allow us to hold them outside the regulations of the Geneva Conventions, outside of previous United States law, and outside of our general moral concerns. It is worth a moment of our time, then, to consider who these men actually are, what we intend to do with them, and whether our means will justify our bespoken ends.
Of the 775 men and boys who have been held as “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo, about 340 have been released, 110 are scheduled for release, around 70 are to stand trial, and around 250 “may be held indefinitely”. Only ten have been charged with anything at all.
Of these prisoners, over half have been determined by our own military to not have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its allies. Many are being held due to their affiliation with organizations which are not actually on the Homeland Security terrorist watchlist. Sixty percent of this group are not even categorized as “fighting for” or “being members of” these organizations, but merely of being “associated with” these groups. For two percent of the prisoners, no connection to any even halfway dubious group has yet been established.
Lawyers attempting to defend the detainees at Guantanamo must pass a grueling series of hurdles in order to represent their clients, and then even after flying to the base itself in order to talk with them they are often frustrated by having their notes held for review upon leaving. On the rare occasion that a prisoner comes up for trial, their legal representatives assert that the defense is at a marked disadvantage, due to revisions in trial procedure under the Military Commissions Act which allow the admission of “hearsay” evidence while not allowing proper time or access to the suppliers of said evidence for questioning.
Multiple detainees at Guantanamo have complained of abuse, both before and after their release. Our own FBI agents have corroborated their stories. The facility has been condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights organizations. The EU has expressed its disapproval, and newspapers all across the globe, with both right- and left-leaning agendas have criticized the United States for allowing it to remain operative.
In light of all of these facts, the obvious question is whether our detainment of these men in Guantanamo Bay is actually helping us, in any way, to “win the war on terror”?
Certainly, it has cost us global respect. As we lose our position of authority, we also lose willing allies in our fight. If we lose cooperation from other nations, we lose the capacity to render justice to those who can be proven to intend us harm. This is much more pragmatic than an idealistic notion of “taking the moral high ground”. We simply cannot win this battle on our own. We need the cooperation of friendly nations, and we are not going to get it by demonstrating that we care nothing for international law or justice.
In arresting the innocent (or, more often, merely paying a bounty to foreign agents for anyone they care to pass over to us as “terrorists”), we fuel the fire of anti-American sentiment. This is not something which needs extensive discussion to be proven as true. It is blatantly obvious. If France imprisoned your son for five years without ever bringing charges…would you be angry with France?
In voting into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, our representatives have gutted a fundamental principle of the United States Constitution, defied the Geneva Conventions, and opened the doorway for any one of us, U.S. citizen or not, to become Guantanamo detainees.
It is worth taking a moment to look over the names and faces of those we have kept locked away at Guantanamo. Bear in mind that even if they are deemed “no longer enemy combatants” and released, they may have nowhere to go, or they may end up re-arrested or “disappeared” in their homelands for the same “offenses” which landed them in Guantanamo in the first place.
Of course, some of the men held in Guantanamo probably do rate among the “worst of the worst” in the sense that they wish great harm upon the United States and her citizens. If we are going to deal with terrorism, however, we must be wise enough to address its roots even while we are dealing with the symptoms. Our current system is counter to our goal.
We cannot possibly manage to detain every single person on this planet who might possibly wish us harm, especially when our own actions engender so much anger and mistrust on an international scale. We must reform ourselves into a nation of laws, of justice, and freedom, by returning to the standards laid down in our Constitution and the Geneva Conventions instead of twisting words to our short-term benefit.
We must be scrupulous in our actions, particularly when we mete out justice for wrongdoing against us, by taking care that our methods are beyond any reasonable reproach. Through becoming open in our actions and methods, we increase the likelihood of cooperation from the international community, thereby increasing the effectiveness of our efforts.
As we take these steps, we must look carefully at the rest of the world and attempt to discover what can be done to mitigate the hatred which leads to terrorism. We can and should address injustice and inequity on a global level, engage the moderates of other nations, rather than fighting the extremists, and engage as equals with other nations to overcome our mutual problems. Until we do so, terrorism will continue to be the hydra we cannot defeat, and we will edge closer and closer to not being able to tell the difference between the “terrorists” and ourselves.