Fyodor Dostoyevsky argued that the “degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” What does it mean when certain prisons are located on occupied territory and the treatment of prisoners are reminiscent of torture techniques used during the Spanish Inquisition?
President Obama inherited the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp as just one among the many follies of the Bush Administration. Not only is “Gitmo” terrible for Public Relations, it is also illegal according to international law and symbolic of the failure of the Bush Administration’s policies as a whole. Indeed, although this prison supposedly holds what former VP Dick Cheney refers to as “really bad men,” the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden are still unknown and America’s farcical “War on Terror” has only succeeded in creating more terrorists. That propagandistic argument that is used to justify torture is void for this reason too, for even if torturing one person could help save the lives of many people, how useful is that when you are simultaneously enraging thousands more into becoming your enemy?
Even though the Bush Administration has been added to the pages of America’s dark past of foreign policy, Obama’s failure to gain leverage on his celebrated move to begin the process of shutting down the illegal detention centre continues to baffle even his most ardent supporters. Besides facing stark opposition from Republicans, even his fellow Senate Democrats have resisted his attempts.
It has been reported that prisoners were hopeful when news spread about Obama’s move to shut down the facility, not because they believed that they were going to be freed entirely from prison walls, but because they were going to be moved to a different prison, which was infinitely better than being where they were. Some counter that it doesn’t matter whether Gitmo is closed since the inhabitants will just be moved to another prison, but it matters to the prisoners. It matters if these men are given a fair trial within a reasonable amount of time. Their treatment must also be in line with the Geneva Convention and military justice law.
We have all seen reports on the horrors of Gitmo. In addition to articles, films and documentaries about events in Abu Ghraib and Bagram, so too have images and testimonies surfaced about America’s dungeon on Cuban land. But when pictures of naked Middle Eastern men hanging upside down surface, many either look away or shake their heads disapprovingly. Regardless of which group we may fall into, the end result is the same in both cases – people move on.
Culpability and responsibility are not only limited to America. Canadians have yet to convince Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to bring home child soldier Omar Khadr, who has been detained in both Bagram and Gitmo since he was 15 years old. Harper remains immobile (besides moves to actually appeal the decision) even despite Federal Judge James O’Reilly’s 43-page report urging him to demand that the US return Khadr to Canada:
“The ongoing refusal of Canada to request Mr. Khadr’s repatriation to Canada offends a principle of fundamental justice and violates Mr. Khadr’s rights.”
In response most Canadians have also looked away or shaken their heads disapprovingly. They have moved on as well.
One of Jeremy Scahill’s recent investigative reports exposes Gitmo’s “Immediate Reaction Force” or what the prisoners and their lawyers call the “Extreme Repression Force.” Scahill was also recently interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now where he describes some of the techniques these men use to punish misbehaving prisoners. (Note that misbehaviour includes having 2 styrofoam cups in your cell instead of just 1):
“They come in with their Darth Vader outfits, and they literally gang-beat prisoners. There are five men, generally, that are sent in. Each of them is assigned to one body part of the prisoner: the head, the left arm, the right arm, the left leg, the right leg. They go in, and they hogtie the prisoner, sometimes leaving them hogtied for hours on end. They douse them with chemical agents. They have put their heads in toilets and flushed the toilets repeatedly. They have urinated on the heads of prisoners. They’ve squeezed their testicles in the course of restraining them. They’ve taken the feces from one prisoner and smeared it in the face of another prisoner.”
These horrifying events continue to occur while some continue to defend them. In the words of Dick Cheney:
“Guantánamo is a great facility. It’s very well run. These people are very well treated. It’s open to inspection by the International Red Cross and the press and so forth. It’s a good facility, it’s an important program, and we ought to continue it.”
And just last month Miss Universe Dayana Mendoza had a great time during her guided tour of the facility, describing it as a “…a relaxing place, so calm and beautiful.”
Scahill did another piece called “Obama’s Iraq: The Picture of Dorian Gray.” In Oscar Wilde’s story Dorian Gray is a man who stays young and beautiful on the outside while a portrait of him ages and recedes into the increasingly repulsive image of what he is really like on the inside. Scahill asserts that the reality of Obama’s inheritance of the White House’s picture can be seen if we look at the tragic state of Iraq, and this also includes Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Gharib and much more. Within those cell walls located in various countries, men, women, children and teenagers are tortured or force fed because they are willingly trying to starve themselves to death. They may be “bad people,” but what do we make of their American tormentors?
Wilde’s story ends when Gray finally faces the portrait which he had kept hidden away for years from everyone including himself. When he finally lays eyes on it he dies and the portrait is restored to its original image. Gitmo is one among many elements of the notoriety of the American empire’s true image. Obama began taking the first steps towards facing this image, but how far will he go and can he follow through? Keep in mind that even though Dorian died, he took his ugliness with him, while the original state of the portrait remained, immortalizing him at his best.
Joe Biden prophesied that Obama would be faced with an important test early on in his presidency. Many interpreted this test as the prospect of a new war or a terror attack, but facing America’s true image is Obama’s real test and the most difficult task that he will ever face or choose to shy away from.
Obama’s presidential campaign promised change and hope and much of the world including many elements of the Left willingly embraced it, but now the slightest hint of optimism regarding his decisions are promptly shut down by an increasing number of people and often with bitter contempt. But as Howard Zinn notes, if Obama doesn’t follow through with his promises or fails to listen, then it is up to the American people to force him to:
“That’s been the story of this country. Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it’s been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn’t just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary to bring their situation to the attention of people in power. And that’s what we have to do today.”
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons…” It’s time to put aside Samuel Huntingford’s self-serving analysis and act accordingly – we are all part of the same civilization.