Word broke on February 8 that Trump may soon sign an Executive Order commanding that the prison at Guantánamo remain open. With chilling finality, the text “explicitly revokes” the Executive Order of Obama, signed on his second day of office in 2009, that had ordered the prison closed. The Trump order also welcomes new US captives to the island prison (none have arrived since 2008), including from the Islamic State. If signed, eight years of executive policy to close Guantánamo, vexed by Congress’s mean-spirited obstruction but also Obama’s fateful lack of resolve, will at last vanish.
On February 13, Republican Senators begged Trump in a joint letter to issue the order. Exceeding even its harsh terms, their letter called for the suspension of GTMO’s Periodic Review Boards (PRBs). First convened in 2013, the PRBs have cleared for release dozens of prisoners hitherto destined for indefinite detention without charge or trial; nearly all have since left the prison. But no more, should the Republican Senators win the day. Five men cleared for release (three of them eight years ago by rigorous, inter-agency vetting) are still detained. With the door from GTMO shut, their luckless cases grow perversely tragic.
And lest new detentions at Guantánamo appear hypothetical, the New York Times reports that the United States is currently holding an Al Qaeda suspect in Yemen who could potentially wind up in the prison. We appear poised, in sum, for the vivid return of the GTMO nightmare — the tearing of the scab of a still-bleeding wound.
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The proposed Trump administration order may be appalling, but it comes as little surprise. Trump has long threatened to do stupid and hateful things when he became president. This is one of them. And it is one all of us should care about, deeply.
The proposed order threatens to chew up more lives in an inhumane penal system, while adding fuel to the fires of raging wars between the United States, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups. If you care about safety — of the peoples of the world, Muslims in America, US military personnel, or your own — Trump’s move is beyond the pale.
But Trump’s designs for Guantánamo also lie at the heart of the politics of fear and wanton Islamophobia that has been his administration’s first, tragic-comic act. Guantánamo is a primal scene of irrational fear and sprawling hatred of Muslims following 9-11. Trump has elevated that fear into a national calling. His apparent desire is to retain Guantánamo as the private gulag of his administration, revitalized by surging bigotry and subject to his whims.
Trump’s most hateful policies trade on fears of the most vulnerable: foreign, Muslim men under broad suspicion of being terrorists. To reject this fear is to reject Guantánamo, retro-fitted as the dense container of the worst impulses of Trump and his supporters. Always in part a symbol, Guantánamo now looms as a kind of “stress test” of the power of sanity and tolerance against fear-mongering prejudice.
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The proposed Executive Order trumpets “detention operations” at Guantánamo as a vital means for “protecting America,” while serving “the interests of justice.” This is nonsense. From the day it opened in 2002, the prison at Guantánamo has been a militarily counterproductive, legally disastrous, and morally bankrupt offshore prison, worthy of a tyranny. It has been a place of rampant torture. It has held hundreds of men and boys — the great majority of whom were never involved in terrorist hostilities towards the United States — for years without charge or trial. Many were detained for years even after being cleared for release by the US government itself.
Guantánamo has been condemned by the United Nations and most every country on earth. It has weakened America’s alliances. It has incited the country’s enemies. And it has, in the judgment of active and retired military and national security personnel, made the United States less safe.
As to “justice,” Guantánamo is a living monument to American injustice, including the likely commission of war crimes. Its unworkable and illegitimate Military Commissions have failed as yet to deliver verdicts on Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the tiny handful of men at the prison charged with terrible crimes. For the families of 9-11 victims, this legal mess has provided no closure, no sense of the partial righting of grave wrongs.
Guantánamo, finally, has been a prison for exclusively Muslim men — a fact often under-appreciated even in the rhetoric of the prisoners’ legal and other advocates. So many of the men detained there were essentially framed on account of being Muslim, in regions where the US military had its daggers drawn. Their very presence in Guantánamo — without proof or charge of wrongdoing — reinforces to a fearful American public the perception that all Muslims are terrorists (in fact or in potential). Inflated figures of ex-Guantánamo prisoners “returning to the battlefield” reinforce the idea that Muslims-as-terrorists are never to be trusted. By a vicious circle, Guantánamo strengthens the near-blanket suspicion of Muslims, potentially landing more Muslims in “war on terror” detention, and further stoking anti-Muslim fears.
There is no security rationale for keeping Guantánamo open. Trump’s proposed order amounts to tough-guy posturing within a politics of racialized fear that yokes the United States again towards “the dark side.” If it sends a message to the world, it is what much of the world already knows: that Trump is a menace, willing to act against both America’s interests and its ideals.
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The evening that word of the proposed Executive Order came down, I had the surreal experience of participating in a televised “debate” about it on RT (yes, Russia Today, the global network often described as a propaganda arm of the Putin government, but that’s another story). My counterpart was the Trump surrogate John Hajjar, prominent in the American-Mideast Coalition for Trump. Its greatest notoriety is for having slandered the Gold Star father Khizr Kahn, who so honorably denounced Trump at the Democratic Convention, with ludicrous charges of being a shill for the Muslim Brotherhood. Anxious but determined, I braced for our war of words.
Our exchange was indeed disturbing. Mr. Hajjar frothed with one lie after another about Guantánamo: that it held only the “worst of the worst” terrorist monsters; that interrogations there were a vital source of actionable intelligence; that conditions at Guantánamo have always been, and remain, humane. Empirical evidence, verified by a few minutes with Google, blows away these insidious claims. (The FBI, international bodies, and countless testimony from formerly detained men and some ex-GTMO staff, for example, all speak to the abuse of prisoners.)
Bizarrely, Mr. Hajjar attributed concern over Guantánamo and the recent Muslim ban to the hysteria of the “anarchist left.” A conservative, Bush-appointed judge first upheld the ban’s legal stay. But no matter.
Most frightening was to realize that crackpots like Mr. Hajjar are now in charge, making policy with no regard for facts or the basic tenets of American civic faith. Reason can scarcely puncture the cynicism of such unscrupulous and zealous men.
Our “debate” was also satisfying in the riposte I was able to sling. Mr. Hajjar’s “alternative facts,” as I named them, amounted to “toxic Orwellian drivel.” To his howls about Islamic State atrocities, I answered calmly that one set of crimes does not excuse the perpetration of another. For fleeting seconds, I felt like I was speaking for every person who wished over the last year to crawl into their TV sets and try to scream some sense (whatever one’s tone) at Trump surrogates who have smugly peddled lies on everything from immigration, to health care, to fantasies of mass voter fraud. To “represent,” in this sense, was a duty and an honor.
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Such screams may be of little consequence. But it’s too far to say that nothing works to temper Trump’s extremism. Mercifully, the Trump team walked back from its initial, apparent desire — outlined in a prior draft of an Executive Order on detention — to re-establish black sites and resume torture. The draft prompted a stern letter from prominent Democratic Senators, pushback from within the military and intelligence community, and the alarm of editorial boards. Trump explained his eventual restraint on torture as deference to his friend, the newly minted Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who disclaims future use of the practice. Following the law — and there are ample laws against torture — should not be a matter of personal deference. But so be it.
The full throated resistance of so many to Trump’s benighted Muslim ban has been inspiring. Even judges do not act in a vacuum. “The resistance,” as we have proudly named our dissent, has already borne important fruit.
For years now, the fate of the prison at Guantánamo has been relegated to what feels like a “boutique issue” — of concern to a handful of legal observers and human rights diehards, fighting for much of the last decade against the grinding inertia of a nominally progressive President who failed to deliver on his first official promise. Established in 2002 in a remote Cuban setting, it may seem to younger generations an issue long ago and far away.
But it remains the perhaps the most damning negation of American laws and purported values in an age of open-ended emergency — the thrashing lie to everything the United States claims to be. And it now seems resurrected as the distant center of a new, frightful regime of anti-Muslim hatred tied to a broader, fast-creeping project of authoritarian rule.
Many a banner and fist has been raised to say no to the fear and hate, to embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters, to welcome those who most need welcoming. That spirit should summon still greater courage: to say in the same breath to close Guantánamo.