Few of us are paying attention to Guantánamo Bay right now. But a recent United Nations report reveals that the post-9/11 forever prison is shifting into a macabre new phase: providing end-of-life care for its aging captives with its characteristic brutality. It’s a grim testament to how normalized Guantánamo is in 21st-century America.
Some will see the impending detainee deaths as Guantánamo solving the problem of itself. President Biden, to his credit, isn’t one of them. He has accelerated transfers out of Guantánamo, but his approach has a central flaw: Even if transfers could vacate the detention camp, emptying Guantánamo is not the same as closing Guantánamo. And unless the camp is permanently shuttered, it’s only a matter of time before one of Biden’s successors takes up Donald Trump’s unrealized call to fill it back up with “some bad dudes.” It could well be Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who’s about to be the first presidential candidate with Guantánamo service on his résumé.
In January, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, provided an alarming account of what “care” amounts to at Guantánamo Bay. Ní Aoláin and her coauthors described “systematic healthcare failures” that have led to a “significant deterioration” in the physical and mental health of Nashwan al-Tamir, a detainee with a spinal disability who has undergone six surgeries during his time there. Al-Tamir, also known as Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, pleaded guilty in a US military tribunal last year so he could be transferred somewhere with adequate medical care.
Reading through Ní Aoláin’s report, it’s hard to distinguish care for the ailing from punishment. In September 2021, a “senior medical officer” allegedly ordered guards to hold up al-Tamir in what the report describes as an attempt to “test [his] physical abilities.” When the guards released him, al-Tamir “collapsed immediately as he did not have the strength to hold his own body upright.” The same officer accused al-Tamir of “malingering,” contrary to the assessment of the doctors.
Ní Aoláin addressed her report to an administration that has made strides in reducing the number of detainees. Biden has restored the approach that Barack Obama adopted after Congress blocked his attempt to close Gitmo: sending detainees to foreign countries. In two years, Biden has transferred a quarter of the detainee population he inherited from Trump. Some of them are survivors of CIA black sites, whom the agency would doubtless prefer to never set free.
But the Obama-era status quo has drawbacks. For a year, Biden has deferred a decision on a plea bargain that would spare the accused 9/11 conspirators the death penalty and get the government out of a tribunal that has been hopelessly bogged down in pretrial hearings for more than a decade. But the White House will eventually run out of people it can transfer. It will be left with those charged in the military commissions, as well as people who never have been or will be charged, like the man known as Abu Zubaydah, the first person the CIA tortured after 9/11. Al-Tamir’s experience points to the likeliest outcome for them should the system continue on its trajectory: medical cruelty, followed by death inside Guantánamo. Emptying the camp is a microcosm of the broader liberal approach to the War on Terror: Don’t end it—just make it inconspicuous.
Every day that Guantánamo remains open is another opportunity to refill it. An underappreciated aspect of QAnon, the Trumpist conspiracy theory, is the role that Guantánamo plays in its imagination: Guantánamo is the place where Q fantasizes it will hold the show trials and executions of Democratic Party traitors. Obviously, not a lot has happened as Q predicted. But more important than QAnon’s track record is its will to power, particularly its longing to use Guantánamo Bay for its enemies. Call it the psychic wages of normalizing Gitmo.
Other consequences have already manifested. As first reported by Mike Prysner on his Eyes Left podcast, the Guantánamo detainees who took part in a 2006 hunger strike remember Ron DeSantis. Back then, DeSantis was a Navy officer on Guantánamo’s legal staff who considered the hunger strikers to be “waging jihad” by refusing to eat and advised the camp’s commanders, “You actually can force-feed [them].” Force feeding is an excruciating process of inserting tubes into a detainee’s nose or throat; one Guantánamo survivor, Mansoor Adayfi, recalls it as a sensation akin to drowning. He wrote in a column for Al Jazeera that DeSantis was “smiling and laughing with other officers as I screamed in pain.”
DeSantis understands the role of Guantánamo in the conservative mind: It’s where impunity—fueled by patriotic vengefulness—postures as lawful. It’s not hard to see how someone who learned that lesson would apply it as governor to policies like assaulting Black people’s right to vote, banning books, and persecuting queer people. That’s why an ad supporting DeSantis’s first gubernatorial election boasted that he dealt “with terrorists in Guantánamo Bay.” Retired Col. Mike Bumgarner, who ran the detention facility when DeSantis was there, told The Washington Post that he was sure DeSantis’s service had “hardened him” through exposure to “the really bad side of human beings, of human nature.” Bumgarner surely meant the detainees, not the institutionalized sadism he enforced.
For those who’d prefer not to wait for the next turn of history’s ratchet, Guantánamo’s closure is urgent. Congress should pass laws that expressly forbid battlefield detention in a location off the battlefield and that trigger due-process rights in federal court after battlefield detention has lasted a certain number of days; it should also declare the captives prisoners of war with protections under the Geneva Conventions. And to remove all ambiguity for our post-9/11, postQAnon era, Congress should make clear that US citizens who are not service members cannot be detained or tried by military authorities. Finally, the military should return Guantánamo to its rightful Cuban owners, before what remains of the rule of law dies there with the detainees.