Guantánamo Ain’t No Joke

Guantánamo Ain’t No Joke

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantánamo Bay is very funny. Nothing about the real place is.


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Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantánamo Bay, the long-awaited sequel to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is now drawing young audiences to the nation’s multi-plexes. We at the Center for Constitutional Rights represent several hundred detainees held in the prison at Guantánamo–a place so distant from the rule of law that, as one of the government officials in the film says, “They haven’t even heard of rights” there.

As you might expect, the news media have approached us for comment on whether the film portrays the issues accurately, whether it will advance public debate and so forth. That is quite a lot to expect from a film series that is essentially a Cheech and Chong franchise starring Asian-Americans–although the sequel very cleverly subverts and exceeds expectations as political commentary. But, as with most works of popular culture, the way the film is marketed says more about America than the screenplay.

The working title of the movie was reportedly Harold and Kumar Go to Amsterdam. Apparently the named destination changed to Guantánamo a little over a year ago. The film’s main characters actually only spend about five minutes in each location–most of the movie being staged in America’s Deep South, the part of the country whose voters have effectively set the agenda on defense and national security policy for the last eight years–but the fact that Guantánamo replaced the weed capital of the free world in the title of a stoner flick tells us several things.

To begin with, the reference works as a joke only because the vast majority of people now see Guantánamo as so illegitimate that it approaches absurdity. The man held for five years because of his friendship with a “suicide bomber” (who was alive and well in Germany); the Bosnian Red Crescent worker asked to respond to charges that he “associated” with a “known Al Qaeda member” (without being told that person’s name–because it was classified); the government lawyer who claimed in court that a little old lady in Switzerland whose charitable donation is unknowingly diverted to Al Qaeda could be detained as an “enemy combatant”–all of these may one day make the unwieldy “Guantanámoesque” replace “Kafkaesque” in the lexicon. The movie’s marketers would never have risked alienating a significant chunk of their audience by putting the word Guantánamo in the title if there weren’t a broad public consensus that the place is synonymous with injustice.

But the use of the prison as a metaphor for legalistic absurdity and government incompetence is only a small piece of the reality at Guantánamo. And this is the really telling thing about the title: America is not ready for Harold and Kumar Go to Abu Ghraib. Guantánamo can be treated as a punch line in part because it is seen by Americans as primarily an abstract issue about executive abuse of power instead of being about real people. This is partly because American citizens haven’t (with one obscure exception) been held in Guantánamo, so no one was ever released and returned home to give firsthand accounts of their horrific abuse there to the public–which did happen in Britain, Germany and Canada.

What hundreds of men experienced in Guantánamo was torture. It was just as horrifying as Abu Ghraib; in fact, many of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were modeled directly on techniques developed at Guantánamo. Yet the public still disassociates torture from detention without law; it still forgets that wherever prisoners have been hidden from judges and the public, abuses have occurred.

At one point in the movie, as a buffoonish Homeland Security official tries to return Harold and Kumar to Guantánamo following their escape, the head of the NSA snaps, “These kids are obviously innocent…. It’s people like you who make the rest of the world think Americans are stupid!” The audience in the theater I saw the movie in cheered the sentiment.

We in the human rights community often struggle with whether to criticize the Bush Administration on moral grounds or for its inefficacy at catching actual terrorists. Sometimes, the broadest public disdain for immoral government practices can be evoked by showing that they don’t work as advertised to keep us safe. But often that approach loses sight of the most uncomfortable part of the truth.

The movie is very funny. Nothing about the real place is.

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