Criminal justice in the United States has a long and controversial history and continues to be one of the most contentious topics of our time.
The Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Green Party platforms in 2016 all included sections challenging current criminal justice policy and suggesting sweeping reforms to the system, from body cameras to increased police presence.
Also omnipresent in modern politics is the issue of terrorism. Attacks and threats from political and religious extremists have heightened tensions and fueled xenophobia in the United States and abroad, as evidenced by the heavy emphasis on terrorism in the 2016 presidential debates and the introduction of President Trump’s immigration ban.
So, naturally, controversy swirls around a place where criminal justice and national security policy converge: the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center.
Guantánamo is a unique platform for understanding the imperfections in our prison system, specifically because it is meant to house “the worst of the worst”: terrorists, religious extremists, and violent anti-Americans.
When discussing mass murder and terrorism, even the most forgiving people often become strong proponents of retribution. But an institution founded on anger and fear didn’t take long to enter an ethical gray area.
The “GTMO” detention camp has been around since 2002. It was commissioned by President George W. Bush at a time of intense fear and xenophobic sentiment hanging over Americans following the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
The prison’s population hit a peak in spring of 2003, when around 680 men were detained there. In the years since, under both President Bush and President Obama, all but 41 of the detainees were released, in part due to public protests and landmark court cases.
Plenty of anti-Guantánamo sentiment has come from human rights activists who argue that torture tactics used at the prison are inhumane and morally wrong. More complaints have arisen regarding the enormous cost of maintaining the institution.
But many have also pushed for the closing of the prison because of its record of wrongful imprisonment.
A 2010 lawsuit by a former Guantánamo detainee placed Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell during his time as secretary of state under George W. Bush, in the spotlight.
Wilkerson made a declaration under oath detailing the understanding of administration officials that “many of the prisoners detained at Guantánamo had been taken into custody without regard to whether they were truly enemy combatants, or in fact whether many of them were enemies at all.”
Earlier, in a 2008 congressional hearing, Wilkerson had noted that “a significant proportion of the detainees in all their prisons were innocent of any wrongdoing,” blaming a “debilitating shortage of troops” for poor vetting in the field.
With the culpability of many detainees unclear, the ethical gray area grew even grayer.
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel released a memorandum in August 2002 describing, among other things, the “necessity defense,” whereby it justified the detention and torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay in the name of thwarting future terrorist attacks.
This type of statement from the federal government became commonplace, in fact, in order to preserve the legitimacy of Gitmo.
The American public, predominantly opposed to torture even in 2001, began to support it as a counterterrorism measure in greater numbers over time, eventually creating something close to a 50-50 split in American views on the issue.
Most of us, however, are observing from the outside. The vast majority of Americans have never been to Guantánamo or met someone who has.
The recently published Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantanamo is an effort to change that.
Witnesses is by Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir, two men who were wrongfully imprisoned and tortured in the island prison before a judge heard their case and ordered their release.
In a recent interview with IVN, Daniel Norland, a high school history teacher and former attorney who helped Boumediene and Ait Idir bring their stories to the press, talked about what the two men hoped to accomplish with Witnesses.
“Hopefully their story will help open Americans’ eyes to what’s happened -- what’s happening -- in Guantánamo,” he said.
The book describes the journey of Boumediene and Ait Idir from their homes in Bosnia to the American detention center in Cuba, and finally to France and Bosnia, respectively. It is filled with bone-chilling descriptions of torture methods used on the men, as well as clear instances in which government officials chose the illusion of security over the reality of justice.
The extent of their mistreatment is perhaps best characterized by Ait Idir in a 2014 interview with VICE News: “Absolutely no humanity.”
Norland believes that this kind of storytelling is essential to cutting through the partisan rancor around Gitmo.
“If someone reads their account and finds it credible, then it really doesn't matter whether that person is a Democrat or a Republican, liberal, conservative – they’ll recognize that we, as a country, need to be better than this,” he explained.
After a careful read, one realizes that all either man was guilty of was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that’s precisely where the book’s power comes from: not only its personal nature, but also the fact that anyone -- regardless of culpability -- could have been in their position.
“I think we tend to paint with a broad brush,” Norland added. “And I think it’s worth recognizing that every single one of the men imprisoned in Guantanamo has a different story.”
So where do we go from here? With increasingly harsh political rhetoric and xenophobia on the rise in the wake of terrorist attacks, how can we avoid making the same mistakes we’ve made in the past?
In an interview with Mother Jones, Boumediene remarked, “I don’t think most Americans were happy about the abuse—they just didn’t know about it. Of course, that’s partly because they chose to look away. Next time, I hope they won’t.”
The first step to ensuring that our future is not a sequel to our past is research: reading books and articles, watching movies and documentaries, and staying informed. The more we know about the facts, the less we will fall victim to fears and prejudices.
Next, Norland suggests, is “turning down the volume, turning up the civility.”
Whether in dinner table conversations or on presidential debate stages, we can’t even begin to have a conversation about Guantánamo until we leave the shouting and ad hominem attacks at the doorstep.
Only then can we access truly substantial debate, instead of the “hyper-partisan bickering” that dominates the airwaves today.
Finally, reminding ourselves of the humanity of those imprisoned is crucial to ensuring justice.
“I think even a lot of people who are in favor of criminal justice reform -- people who are pro-prisoners' rights, pro-detainees' rights -- I think still sometimes see it as an abstract issue, as a moral/philosophical quandary to debate."
He added, “And it is that, but it’s also something that’s happening to real human beings, and I think learning the stories of those real human beings is important.”
Regardless of the fate of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, Witnesses of the Unseen reminds us of a larger reality that applies to every prison and jail in the world. Innocent, guilty, or somewhere in between, every human deserves to be treated as one.