April 10, 2024

Why I Continue to Write About Guantánamo

I’ve been covering the detention center since 2002, and I’ll continue to do so until it is eradicated—because I refuse to let this injustice be relegated to the past.

Karen J. Greenberg
Guantánamo Bay

A guard tower at the United States’ Guantánamo Bay detention center.

(John Moore / Getty Images)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

Last weekend my father, Larry Greenberg, passed away at the age of 93. Several days later, I received an email from the French film director Phillippe Diaz with a link to his soon-to-be-released I Am Gitmo, a feature movie about the now-infamous Guantánamo Bay detention facility. As I was soon to discover, those two disparate events in my life spoke to one another with cosmic overtones.

Mind you, I’ve been covering Guantánamo since President George W. Bush and his team, having responded to the 9/11 attacks by launching their disastrous Global War on Terror, set up that offshore prison to house people American forces had captured. Previewing Diaz’s movie, I was surprised at how it unnerved me. After so many years of exposure to the grim realities of that prison, somehow his film touched me anew. There were moments that made me sob, moments when I turned down the sound so as not to hear more anguished cries of pain from detainees being tortured, and moments that made me curious about the identities of the people in the film. Although the names of certain officials are mentioned, the central characters are the detainees and individual interrogators, as well as defense attorneys and guards, all of whom interacted at Guantánamo’s prison camp over the course of its two-plus decades of existence.

While viewing it, I was reminded of a question that Tom Engelhardt, founder and editor of TomDispatch, has frequently asked me: “What is it about Guantánamo that’s so captivated you over the years?” Why is it, he wanted to know, that year after year, as its story of injustice unfolded in a never-ending cycle of trials that failed to start, prisoners cleared for release but still held in captivity, and successive administrations whose officials simply shrugged in defeat when it came to closing the nightmarish institution, it continues to haunt me so? “Would you be willing,” he asked, “to reflect on that for TomDispatch?” As it turned out, the death of my dad somehow helped me grasp a way to answer that question with previously unattainable clarity.

The Missing Outrage

As a start, in response to his question, let me say that, despite my own continued immersion in news about the prison camp, I’m struck that, in the American mainstream, there hasn’t been more headline-making outrage over the never-ending reality of what came to be known as Gitmo. From the moment it began in January 2002 and a photo appeared of shackled men bent over in the dirt beside the open-air cages that would hold them, wearing distinctive orange jumpsuits, its horrid destiny should have been apparent. The Pentagon Public Affairs Office published that immediately iconic image with the hope, according to spokesperson Torie Clarke, that it would “allay some of our critics” (who were already accusing the United States of operating outside of the Geneva Conventions).

Rather than allay them, it caught the path of cruelty and lawlessness on which the United States would continue for so many endless years. In April 2004, the world would see images of prisoners in American custody at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, naked, hooded, cuffed, sexually humiliated, and abused. Later reports would reveal the existence of what came to be known as “black sites,” operated by the CIA, in countries around the world, where detainees were tortured using what officials of the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

For 22 years now, through four different administrations, that prison camp in Cuba, distinctly offshore of any conception of American justice, has held individuals captured in the war on terror in a way that defies any imaginable principles of due process, human rights, or the rule of law. Of the nearly 780 prisoners kept there, only 18 were ever actually charged with a crime, and of the eight military court convictions, four were overturned while two remain on appeal.

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A large number of those captured were originally sold to the Americans for bounty or simply picked up randomly in places in countries like Afghanistan known to be inhabited by terrorists and so assumed, with little or no hard evidence, to be terrorists themselves. They were then, of course, denied access to lawyers. And as I was reminded recently on a trip to England where I met with a couple of released detainees, those who survived Gitmo still suffer, physically and psychologically, from their treatment at American hands. Nor have they found justice or any remedy for the lasting harms caused by their captivity. And while the post-9/11 War on Terror moment has largely faded into the past (though the American military is still fighting it in distant lands), that prison camp has yet to be shut down.

A Generation Comes of Age

A second and more timely answer right now to Tom Engelhardt’s question is that my unwavering revulsion to the existence of Guantánamo has stemmed from a worldview that distinctly marked my father and many in his generation—men and women who came of age in the 1940s and early ’50s, whose first moments of adulthood coincided with the postwar emergence of the United States as a global superpower that touted itself as a guardian of civil rights, human rights, and justice. The opposition to fascism in World War II, the support for international covenants protecting civilians, a growing commitment at home to civil liberties and civil rights—those were their ideological guideposts. And despite the contradictions, the hypocrisy, and the failure that lurked just behind the foundational tenets of that belief system, many like my father continued to have faith in the honorable destiny of the United States whose institutions were robust and its motives honorable.

To be sure, there was deep denial involved in his generation’s sugar-coated version of the American experience. The revelation of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam; decisions to overthrow elected governments in Guatemala, Iran, and elsewhere; the profound and systemic domestic racism of the country as described in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; even the dirty dealings of the Nixon White House during Watergate; and, in this century, the official lying that set the stage for the disastrous Iraq War all should have dampened their rose-colored assessment of American democracy. Still, in so many ways he and many of his compatriots held fast to their belief in the power of this country to eternally return to its best self.

True to his belief in the American dream, my father took me to see movies and plays at our local college that amplified a worldview that he, like so many of his generation, embodied. I was often the youngest attendee at those films with stars like Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind, an ode to free speech; Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, with its portrayal of the evils of racism; and Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, whose message doubled down on the tenet that the accused are always innocent until proven guilty. And let’s not forget Judgement at Nuremberg, the dramatization of the post–World War II war crimes tribunals, led by US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, a series of trials in which Nazi leaders were convicted of committing genocide.

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Those films, crying out for fairness, equality, and an end to racism, gave voice to champions of democracy, and energy to my father’s generation’s firm embrace of American possibilities.

Memory and Forgetting

A third answer, also underscored by my recent personal encounter with life’s fleetingness, is my growing fear, as an historian, that Guantánamo will simply be forgotten. In a sense, in the world of Donald Trump, collapsing bridges, and blazing wars in distant lands, it already seems largely forgotten. Although, 22 years later, it’s still home to 30 detainees from the war on terror, Guantánamo attracts little attention these days. If it weren’t for the invaluable work of Carol Rosenberg at The New York Times, who has reported on Gitmo since Day One in January 2002, as well as a handful of other dedicated reporters including John Ryan at Lawdragon, few could know anything about what’s going on there now. As sociology professor Lisa Hajjar points out, “Media coverage at Guantánamo has become a rarity.” While the press pool for the hearings of the military commissions that are still ongoing there averaged about 30 reporters until perhaps 2013, it’s now been whittled down to, at most, “about four per trip,” according to Hajjar.

Gitmo media coverage (and so public attention) has essentially disappeared—hardly a surprise given the current globally crushing issues of war and deprivation, injustice and extralegal policies, not to speak of the mad discomfort of election 2024 here in America. Guantánamo, whose last inmate arrived in 2008 and whose viable path to closure has remained blocked year after year (no matter that three presidents—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden—each declared his desire to shut it down), persists, its deviations from the law unresolved.

As it happens, flagging interest in Guantánamo has coincided with an eerie larger cultural phenomenon—a turn away from history and memory.

In the world of social media and the immediate moment, a malady of forgetfulness about past events should be a cause of concern. In fact, Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn recently published a striking piece on the phenomena. Citing an Atlantic article by psychiatrists George Makari and Richard Friedman, Corn noted that, while forgetting can help people get on with their lives after a traumatic experience, it can also prevent trauma survivors from learning the lessons of the past. Rather than confront the impact of what’s occurred, it’s become all too common to simply brush it all under the rug, which, of course, has its own grim consequences. “As clinical psychiatrists,” they write, “we see the effects of such emotional turmoil every day, and we know that when it’s not properly processed, it can result in a general sense of unhappiness and anger—exactly the negative emotional state that might lead a nation to misperceive its fortunes.” In other words, events like the 9/11 attacks and what followed from them, the Covid pandemic, or even the events of January 6, 2021, as Corn’s psychiatrists point out, can bring such pain that forgetting becomes “useful,” even at times seemingly “healthful.”

Not surprisingly, an increasing forgetfulness about traumatic events is echoed on an even broader scale in a contemporary trend toward the abandonment of history, presumably in favor of the present and its megaphone, the social media universe. As historian Daniel Bessner has pointed out, this country is now undergoing a profound reconsideration of the very purpose and importance of the historical record. Across the country, universities are reducing the size of their history faculties, while the number of undergraduates majoring in history and related fields in 2018–19 had already declined by more than a third since 2012.

No wonder Guantánamo has been relegated to the past, a distant chapter in the ever-diminishing War on Terror and no matter that it continues to function in the present moment. For example, two death penalty cases are currently in pretrial hearings there. One involves the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer, which resulted in the deaths of 17 American sailors. As the intrepid Carol Rosenberg points out, the case has been in pretrial hearings since 2011. The other involves four defendants accused of conspiring in the attacks of September 11. A fifth defendant, Ramzi bin al Shibh, was recently removed from the case, having been found incompetent to stand trial due to the post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from his torture at American hands. As for the remaining defendants, originally charged in 2008 and then again in 2011, no trial date has yet been set. The ever-elusive timetable for those prosecutions tells you everything. Evidence tainted by torture has made such a trial impossible.

The Cycles of American History

It’s hard to fathom how my father’s generation, stubbornly rose-colored in their vision of the country, swallowed the blatant failures of the post-9/11 years. My sense is that many of them, like my dad, just shook their heads, certain that the true spirit of American democracy would ultimately prevail and the wrongs of indefinite detention, torture, and judicial incapacity would be righted. Still, as the country spiraled into January 6 and its aftermath, the reality of America’s lost grip on its own promises of justice, morality, lawfulness, and accountability actually began to sink in. At least it did with my dad, who expressed clear and present fears of a country succumbing to the specter of his childhood, fascism, the very antithesis of the America he aspired to.

Philippe Diaz’s film about Gitmo (which I encourage readers to catch when it premieres at the end of April) should remind at least a few of us of the importance of living up to the image of the country my father and others in his generation embraced. Isn’t it finally time to highlight the grave mistake of Guantánamo? Isn’t it finally time to close that shameful prison, distinctly offshore of American justice, and reckon with its wrongs, rather than letting it disappear into the haze of forgotten history, its momentous violations unresolved.

In 2005, in his confirmation hearings for attorney general, George W. Bush’s longtime legal counsel Alberto Gonzales maintained that the ideals and laws codified in the Geneva Conventions were “quaint and obsolete.” That phrase, consigning notions of justice and accountability to the dustbin of history, encapsulated this country’s post-9/11 strategy of evading the law in the name of “security.” And as long as Guantánamo remains open, that strategy remains in place.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, rather than letting Gonzalez etch in stone an epitaph for the ideals my father and his generation so revered, we could find hope in a future where their trust in the rule of law and in a government of responsible citizens who put country above personal fortune, law above fear, and peace above war might prevail? As we lay my dad’s generation to rest, shouldn’t we take some consolation in the possibility that their spirit may still help us find our way out of today’s distinctly disturbing and unnerving times?

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Karen J. Greenberg

Karen J. Greenberg is director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. She is the author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days, Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, and most recently, Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump.

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