Six months into U.S. President Barack Obama's second term, the Guantanamo Bay prison continues to bear a ghastly testimony to all that was wrong with his predecessor's 'war on terror'.
“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” [what Bush said]... "in both cases you are eligible for an invite to our Gitmo Ghosthouse" [what he implied]
Early July 2013, just before the beginning of the Holy month of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama was on a lavishly-funded trip to Africa. Toward the end of the trip, he visited Robben Island, South Africa, the place where anti-Apartheid icon Nelson Mandela spent two-third of his 27-year imprisonment. The President considered the place an appropriate spot to talk to his children about nonviolence - the spot being located in a country where satyagraha as a concept originated.
Having visited the prison and having visualised the daily grind prisoners like Mandela and Walter Sisulu had gone through, Obama said he felt “humbled”.
Perhaps he would have felt much more “humbled” had he chosen another island, closer to home, for giving his daughters a primer on nonviolence. It is an island located near Florida - an American state which was in news about a year before 9/11. The glorious uncertainties of U.S. presidential elections had seen George W. Bush getting elected ahead of Al Gore for his first term in 2000.
Bush Junior, no believer in satyagraha I suppose, had overseen more than 130 executions during his term as Texas Governor earlier. Ready to strike anyone asking for it, with a vengeance.
Junior summoned exactly that kind of political will after 9/11. Subordinating all other executive and legislative provisions to the “Bush doctrine”, he declared an ill conceived “war on terror”. And opened that execrable prison in an island originally belonging to a tiny neighbour which the United States has chosen to embargo for more than five decades - Cuba.
Guantanamo Bay, name of the island. comes under the sovereignty of Cuba but is operated by the U.S. In the aftermath of 9/11, it became the Bush administration’s favourite dumping ground for terror suspects. A place where suspects could be interrogated without the constraints of due process. An area of convenience for the administration to extract confessions under duress from detainees and administer the form of retributive justice Bush, the Texas Governor, effectively did.
In Bush Junior's term as Governor, it was the minorities at the receiving end; in his war, it was an entire community for the acts of a few misguided nonstate actors.
Constitutional niceties were given a short shrift. Considering the sabre rattling in the air at that time, asking questions like “Is the warrantless arrest and harsh treatment given to detainees justifiable by law?” and “Should the detainees be tried at all and if yes, should they be tried in a civil court or a military court?” was considered unpatriotic.
The Bush doctrine, formulated in the aftermath of 9/11, provided a one stop answer to many such legitimate questions. The Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) act, cleared by the Congress on September 18, 2011, stated:
“The President is authorised to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organisations, or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organisations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organisations or persons.”
And this is how Pentagon’s National Defence Strategy 2005 - Bush had got reelected in 2004 - put it:
“Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.”
So the U.S. started treating entire nation(s) as enemy though the perpetrators were nonstate actors. Along with those nations, the Bush administration considered both international fora and judicial processes - including those coming under American Constitution - as anti-U.S. as terrorism. These were the adversaries, the enemy combatants, against whom all the “necessary and appropriate force” had to be used to prevent or pre-empt such terror acts in future.
The administration found a convenient spot to circumvent the judicial niceties - a place under Cuban sovereignty but under control of the U.S. A place where neither U.S. Constitution nor Cuban laws applied.
And More than a decade after it was started, Guantanamo (or Gitmo, another term used for it) Bay’s prison continues to have 166 detainees.
Obama the presidential candidate was firm on closing it down; Obama the President and Nobel-peace prize winner was equally vehement - in fact he said in his Cairo speech, 2009 that he would get it closed within a year.
However, attempts to close the prison in his first term were forestalled by a far-right opposition in the Congress, with the House of Representatives (Lower House) hellbent on taking an anti-Obama stance.
Six months into his second term, Gitmo inmates, most of them on extra-legal detention, feel they have had enough of torture. They either want to be freed or want to give their lives fighting. The tool of protest they have chosen is a variant of the one Obama educated his daughters about when he was in Robben Island -- satyagraha.
Prisoners are exercising one of the very few freedoms available to them - freedom to choose their attitude - by choosing to refuse prison food. Though it started, earlier this year, over the issue of desecration of Koran, its roots lay in the nature of their detention itself.
Two third of the prisoners were on strike at its peak and 200 days after they started, 37 continue to latch on to the final straw of support. And this is the official figure.
Speaking to RT, Carlos Warner, lawyer for many Gitmo inmates, called the information “unreliable” and said that despite military claims of number of hunger strikers decreasing, their hunger strike is still “grand in duration and size”. This timeline provides updates on the situation.
The ones controlling the prison had been/still are in no mood to relent and began force-feeding the detainees against their wishes earlier this year. The humiliation continued through the month of Ramadan, though as a mark of “respect” to their religious sensitivities, some leeway was offered by making them go through the process only after sunset.
The process, just as the detention itself, has been challenged in court and rejected, the judiciary being helpless in the face of executive and legislative overreach. Many prisoners - 33 as per official numbers - are still being made to go through the ordeal.
If the force-feeding persists, along with the indifference Obama administration and the opposition the Congress has shown so far, many of them would either be reduced to a debilitated state or death. And this would happen in months, not years.
Gitmo has fostered exactly the kind of anti-Americanism it was mean to deter, especially in the Arab world. As Zbigniew Brzezinski put it “the evocative symbol of America in the eyes of much of the world [has] ceased to be the Statue of Liberty and instead [has] became the Guantánamo prison camp”.
‘Sing of her praises
How did U.S. acquire control over Guantanamo, located in a country it has considered either a client-state or an adversary for a major part of the last 100 years? Why is the base still under U.S. control? Has any of the previous administrations made any effort to close it, considering that maintaining it is a big drain on the resources? This piece provides some answers.
In 1901, as if following the “white man’s burden” dictum, the Secretary of War Elihu Root listed provisions that “the people of Cuba should desire” for their Constitution. One provision gave the U.S. the right to intervene freely in Cuban internal affairs and access to its land for naval bases. To codify it, Platt Amendment, passed by U.S. Senate on March 1, 1901, was formulated. One of the delegate did charge that it would transform Cubans into a “vassal people”. However, keeping in mind the spirit of the times, it was adopted.
The terms legitimising U.S. hold over it were, from the outset, kept broad and easily amenable to interpretation. In 1903, it was provided that Gitmo would be used for coaling and naval station “and for no other purpose”. The lease was “for the time required”, the actual time - in number of months or years - not specified.
Though Cuba retained “ultimate sovereignty”, U.S. exercised“complete jurisdiction and control.” The lease was extended in 1934, without a withdrawal date. More importantly, it could be ended by U.S. unilateral action or a U.S.-Cuba settlement but not by Cuban action alone. So, Cuba did not have authority to decide on an island located within its own sovereign control! Clearly, victory in the Philippine war had given the “Land of the Free” a licence to occupy other territories and make them unfree.
A contemporary sailor’s song went thus:
“So, hurray for old Gitmo on Cuba’s fair shore,
The home of the cockroach, the flea and the whore,
We’ll sing of her praises and pray for the day
We’ll get the hell out of Guantánamo Bay.”
Fast forward to 1993. Following a coup, refugees from Haiti to the U.S. were being sent to Guantanamo. The judgement quoted below, given on June 8 1993, sounds totally reflective of conditions in Gitmo even now, in 2013. There is a sad sameness to it:
Without due process, the judgement went, the state possessed unchecked authority “to take, kidnap, or abscond, whatever you want to call it, take a group and put them into a compound, whether you call it a humanitarian camp or a prison, keep them there indefinitely while there has been no charge leveled against them and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Twenty years later, prisoners of a different political situation feel there is still no light at the end of the tunnel. The only light they foresee is perhaps at the end of their present life.
In a rather morbid reminder of the series of events that unfolded on 9th September 2011, some news sites released photos last year (2012) showing some of the 9/11 victims jumping out of the twin towers. The husband of one of the victims reacted by telling that his wife and others had chosen their mode of death - one of the very few choices that were available to them as they counted their final moments.
Perhaps the Gitmo detainees are attempting something similar? By choosing their mode of death rather than living a life devoid of dignity; and more importantly, a life devoice of choice?