A Guantanamo State of Mind

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Common Dreams

A Guantanamo State of Mind

"Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up."- Pastor Martin Niemöller

The Maldives: turquoise lagoons, coral gardens, drinks with umbrellas. No longer. Quite recently, Sri Lankan police officers, alerted about the possible presence of three persons of Maldivian descent, who may have links to "Islamic Fundamentalists," dutifully detained three people. I don't know what happened after. I do know another Maldivian: Ibrahim Fauzee was studying in Karachi when he was arrested by American authorities and shipped to Guantanamo on May 19th, 2002 and held for nearly three years before being released without charges.

Abu Ghraib...Guantanamo...other unnamed American prisons in undisclosed locations, scattered like cow-dung on a field of flowers...

As of today, according to ABC news sources, all aflutter in the wake of a ruling by the United States Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Guantanamo, there are "roughly 450 men" being held there. www.cageprisoners.com, lists close to 800. Admittedly, some were released, albeit years later and with no charges. Others, well, they just die. They up and commit suicide while in high-security prisons. Take Yasser Talal Al Zahrani for example. A 17 year old when arrested in 2001, he was on a hunger strike and being force-fed from June, 2005, until his death a year later. Somehow he found the strength, the agility and most of all the privacy to make himself a rope and hang himself on June 10, 2006!

The case brought before the Supreme Court by the Center for Constitutional Rights was on behalf of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, supposedly bin Laden's driver, and at Guantanamo for four years. The majority decision worded by Justice Stevens stated that "the United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay." Specifically, against being held in custody in a manner that violates the American constitution, its laws or its treaties.

The ruling took into consideration the fact that the United States, under the terms of its lease with Cuba, holds complete jurisdiction over the premises at Guantanamo Bay that were not contravened by Cuba's claim to ultimate sovereignty. (Isn't it the height of irony that an order that gives the U.S. absolute control over any part of Cuba should far from warming the cockles of his heart, strike terror into Mr. Bush's soul?)

But the minority ruling crafted by Justice Scalia claimed that the majority decision permits "an alien captured in a foreign theater of active combat to petition the Secretary of Defense...and brought the cumbersome machinery of our domestic courts into military affairs." Well, the military does carry that big stick and tends to use it with a certain alacrity that dissuades any comment, even something as fleeting as a prayer. Lord forbid our labyrinthine domestic legal processes get in the way of anything as delightfully excruciating as our torture chambers!

In Scalia's opinion, what would qualify as a "foreign theater of active combat" in the With-Us-Or-Against-Us universe of George W. Bush? Pretty much anywhere except the boardrooms of giga-corporations, the Republican National Congress, and rooms occupied by Laura Bush and the Bush twins.

"Enemy combatants" are similarly plentiful. The mother outside the gates of the American Embassy for a visa only to be turned away who gives audible voice to her discontent; your spiritually inclined brother who reads the Quo'ran and decides to study Arabic; your father who has had it with American corporations exploiting his nation's heritage; your son who marries a Muslim and converts to that faith; your grand-daughter who just plain hates America; even Americans who dislike what America is doing! Every flag-burner, tree-hugger, do-not-wire-tap-me shouter, anti-bush-sticker-paster and anybody else you can think of.

The American legal system is one of presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Setting aside the fact that color and socio-economic class tend to tarnish the innocent with guilt before they ever see a judge, it is still the guiding principle of the courts. Foreign-based detention centers on the other hand are filled with people pre-labeled "enemy combatants." They don't have to be charged, and as for innocence -- that can be tortured right out of their bodies.

Medical ethicist and physician Dr. Stephen Miles' new book, Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity & the War on Terror, details the results of Donald Rumsfeld's order -- when he was busy contravening the Geneva Convention -- that military doctors be involved in the use of torture: present to authorize methods, and to examine victims afterwards. The details are difficult to absorb, from relatively minor infractions such as withholding treatment to a prisoner with a gunshot wound for three days to the sodomizing of children whose deaths are always footnotes in documents at the Department of Defense.

And how does this relate to Guantanamo? Miles' book is based - among other things - on more than 35,000 pages of documentation on autopsies, army criminal investigations, FBI notes on debriefings, and medical records, all obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA requests have not generated much with regard to Guantanamo and the Supreme Court ruling is not going to change that. It was not until April 3rd of 2006 that the names of those held at Guantanamo were released and only after a legal challenge under FOIA by the Associated Press (AP) which obtained the dossiers of 59 detainees.

Here is the official definition of an enemy combatant: "an individual who was part of or supporting the Taliban or al-Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. This includes any person who committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy armed forces."

Out of the alleged 400 odd prisoners at Guantanamo, only 10 have been charged with crimes by the United States. Nonetheless, the cover sheet of each of those dossiers asserts that the detainee is an enemy combatant according to proof being held by the United States, namely George Walker Bush et al (the respondents in each case). The job of the detainee -- denied representation or contact with his family -- is to produce evidence to the contrary. Yes, from behind bars, under conditions of torture, and with no way for those outside to look for the disappeared without the grace of FOIA.

The revelations of Abu Ghraib were shattering for a society obsessed with visuals. Guantanamo on the other hand is a frame of mind and only if one is that-way inclined. It's going on somewhere "over there" and we don't really care. We have no photographs. We don't have names. We don't know those people. Bertrand Russell once said, "neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear," and we have become a fearful nation, hiding our lack of courage behind our burqua of selective ignorance.

Dr. Miles was asked if he is scared for his life. This was his response: "I am disturbed by (what that question) says about fear of our government, a fear that reveals the damage that a torturing society does to the sense of civil liberties...it is deeply disrespectful of my colleagues (in other countries) who have assumed greater risks...to fight torture in their nations. For most Americans, it takes little more than the courage to be inconvenienced to speak against torture in the U.S. If we are truly at risk of greater danger, it is all the more necessary that we should speak out."

Here's a snap shot of the Guantanamo we know of: the neon lights stay on 24/7. A guard passes each prison every thirty seconds. The cages are made of metal mesh. It is hot. You are alone. What we don't know we can only imagine.

The Supreme Court has merely tut-tutted. Republican senators are planning to win congressional approval for new tribunals to replace the ones just ruled illegal, and construction continues on the new Gitmo jail at Guantanamo. As a newscaster opined this afternoon, he envisioned the proliferation of mini-Guantanamos in other countries under the pretext of repatriation, where prisoners will stay until they lose their lives -- to death or injustice, it's the same thing.

We over here appear set to remain silent until we lose the ability to speak at all and there is nobody left to speak for us.

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman's creative and political writing has appeared internationally. She is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009) and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf, 2013), a New York Times Editor's Choice. Both novels have been translated into several languages including Italian, French, Hebrew, and Chinese. She blogs on literature and politics, is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review, and has been a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is the 2014 winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award for Fiction by an American Woman.

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