Mexico-United States Border. Image credit: Shutterstock / David Peinado Romero

In these days of saber-rattling and border-walling, it is time to think about the next Guantánamo. We don’t know exactly what it will look like—part of what makes a Guantánamo possible is the insistence that no one could’ve seen it coming—but history assures us it will come. It might be a place (Guantánamo), a number of places (CIA black sites), but also a program (the Red Scare). It might even be a bundle of rights wrongly withdrawn, like suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus. 

Guantánamos have never been primarily about the site of the horror or the character of the abuse, which vary with the felt demands of the day. Instead, they are the vessels we build to contain the nightmares we summon. We create Guantánamos in those fevered moments when imagined needs enflame ancient hatreds and modern fears, telling ourselves they will keep us safe and forgetting that they never have before. 

Perhaps the next Guantánamo will target Chinese nationals or United States citizens of Chinese ancestry. Anti-Chinese sentiment has a long history in America, and recent events—from the pandemic and the theft of trade secrets to the operation of a secret Chinese police station in New York—have rekindled old prejudices. FBI Director Chris Wray has said the FBI opens a new investigation on China every 10 hours. In November 2018, the Department of Justice launched the China Initiative to counter Chinese economic espionage. Though the program ended in early 2022, China remains a prominent focus of federal law enforcement.

Indeed, China is increasingly described as an existential threat to the United States. In February 2023, the House of Representatives created a new Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party. At its first hearing, titled “The Chinese Communist Party’s Threat to America,” Committee Chair and China hawk Mike Gallagher (R-WY) warned that the looming clash between the United States and China “is not a polite tennis match. This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the twenty-first century—and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.”

To their credit, Gallagher and ranking Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) both insisted that conflict with China should not mean discrimination against Chinese nationals in the United States. However, President Bush and members of both parties said much the same about Muslims in the wake of 9/11. This tells all we need to know about the enduring power of such caveats. 

And this was hardly the first hearing that sounded the China alarm. Two weeks earlier, on February 7, the House Armed Services Committee convened a hearing entitled, “The Pressing Threat of the Chinese Communist Party to U.S. National Defense,” where Admiral Harry Harris (Ret-U.S.N.) testified that the United States was “at an inflection point in history”:

President Reagan once said, “We cannot play innocents abroad in a world that’s not innocent.” This statement is as true today as it was on December 7th … through the Cold War … on 9/11 … and on 2/24 when Russia invaded Ukraine. The world remains a dangerous place … We find ourselves, again, in peer competition with adversaries who are developing and deploying cutting-edge weaponry and information disorder to undermine democracy and defeat us.

Meanwhile, on the first Sunday in March, the New York Times ran an article about a new Marine regiment and its efforts “to figure out one of the service’s highest priorities: how to fight a war against Chinese forces in their own backyard, and win.” The article ran alongside another that said China’s leader Xi Jinping “is poised to secure even more power” in his relentless quest “to elevate China into a technologically advanced superpower capable of standing up to Washington as a peer.” Only in the article’s seventeenth paragraph did the journalists describe Xi’s desire “to lower tensions with the United States.” 

As sober observers have warned, bipartisan China-bashing is becoming a self-sustaining force, an “action-reaction cycle that has steadily ratcheted up tensions” and increases the risk of crisis and perhaps war. The problem of super-power competition is real, but the ingrained response—the “escalatory spiral” of angry recriminations—must not be allowed to produce an anti-China Guantánamo.

When it comes to repression in the ostensible service of national security, the United States has a long history of punching down. We single out the particularly defenseless, a tendency best symbolized by caging children at the border. The next Guantánamo may also take aim at the very symbols of America’s hospitality: the tired, the poor, the “wretched refuse,” who are “tempest-tossed” to our door. Instead of China or Chinese nationals, perhaps the next Guantánamo will be in reaction to mass global migrations. And mass is the operative word.

On our current trajectory, a belt of land that encircles the planet will become gradually uninhabitable. In the next three decades, perhaps as many as 1.2 billion people will be displaced by a cascade of climate catastrophes. Where will they go? Some will head south or north, and some will cross oceans to seek refuge; and millions will head to the United States. 

Little in U.S. history can give us reason to believe the presence of huddled masses at the southern border, millions strong and yearning to be free, will be met with anything other than a repressive response. In our neoliberal age, it’s not hard to imagine that the United States might contract with private companies to construct and operate San Diego-sized refugee camps throughout Central America that in time would look and function increasingly like prisons, the land acquired in exchange for massive aid packages. 

Indeed, considerably smaller versions already exist, as climate refugees crowd camps in Mexico, North Africa, and across the Sahel, the semi-arid belt of sub-Saharan nations stretching from Senegal in the west to Chad in the east—and private prisons in the United States, which hold four of every five immigrant detainees, are a booming business. These camps will not be Guantánamo or CIA black sites—there will be no waterboarding—but they will be what every Guantánamo and black site symbolizes: a distant cage, out of sight and mind, where we can safely entomb the monsters we imagined into existence. 

Still, if we cannot predict exactly what the next Guantánamo will look like, we can nonetheless recognize its approach by the distinctive sounds that precede it. The first thing we will hear is that the threat is urgent and dire. Just as frightening but false claims of Japanese espionage on the West Coast set us on the road to internment, and just as frightening but false claims that alleged al Qaeda operatives had a supernatural ability to resist interrogation set us on the road to torture, some comparably frightening, but equally false, claim leveled against immigrants will launch us on the road to our next Guantánamo.

Then we will hear that our institutions and laws are no match for the new challenge. The War Department insisted we had to intern the Japanese en masse because there was no way to separate “the sheep from the goats” and “time was of the essence.” Due process be damned; the country simply had to “face the realities—a positive determination could not have been made.” President Bush insisted alleged terrorists weren’t like “common criminals,” and that we had to create Guantánamo, black sites, and military commissions “to protect the American people.”

Yet none of this—neither an insistence that the threat is urgent nor a belief that our institutions are inadequate—would be enough to produce a Guantánamo. For that, a vessel built not so much to house humans as to contain nightmares, we need to believe the enemy is not like us and we are right to cast them from humanity’s circle. We need dehumanization. Guantánamo, black sites, and waterboarding don’t happen unless we believe in monsters.

When the first prisoners arrived at Guantánamo in 2002, senior administration officials denounced them extravagantly. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described them as “among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.” Vice President Dick Cheney said they were “the worst of a very bad lot … devoted to killing millions of Americans.” General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called them “very dangerous people who would gnaw hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 [aircraft] to bring it down.” Yet this was tame compared to the demonizing rhetoric deployed to justify CIA torture. 

In December 2004, Wayne Simmons, who said he had spent 27 years working for the CIA, appeared on the FOX News Show, Hannity & Colmes, to defend the Agency’s “enhanced interrogation program.”

“Let’s put it right on the table,” Simmons said. “These are sub-humans. These are very, very smart sub-humans. Their sole goal in life is to kill us, to kill the West, to kill your children.” On another appearance on the show, he emphasized his personal expertise. “I lived with these animals. This is a sub-human species of somehow a deviation of the human, of the true human. They care for nothing. They kill everything in their path.” In 2016, Simmons pleaded guilty to defrauding the United States Government. In a statement after his guilty plea, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia said bluntly, “Wayne Simmons is a convicted felon with no military or intelligence experience.”

It is sobering to think that the United States created Guantánamo and CIA black sites from a twenty-first century baseline that was not particularly hostile to Muslims. Though it seems impossible to imagine today, the fact is that American Muslims were moving broadly into the Republican fold at the end of the last century and voted overwhelmingly for George Bush in the 2000 election, including in the then-battleground states of Michigan and Florida. This helped contain the national reaction to 9/11, along with bipartisan messaging that delegitimized anti-Muslim hate crimes, at least in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. As godawful as they have been, Guantánamo and the black sites would have been far worse in the absence of these guardrails.

Two decades later, these guardrails have been largely torn down. A sprawling network of funders, think-tanks, lobbyists, litigators, and advocacy organizations, ranging ideologically from mainstream conservative to nativist/white supremacist, churns out a steady stream of anti-immigrant vitriol, sometimes in the most dehumanizing terms. Mainstream politicians, largely but not entirely on the right, have embraced many of these messages, though generally recasting the most inflammatory in dog-whistle codes. 

In the 2022 midterm election cycle alone, researchers identified more than 2,100 Republican campaign ads that used nativist messaging, and over 500 pieces that echoed the latest expression of a timeless white American nightmare: “invasion” by minority hordes that will “replace” the white population. This production, which can target both Asian and Latin American immigrants, is then amplified by a universe of conservative media outlets that reach tens of millions daily.

Guantánamos exist for nightmares brought to life. Today, the nightmare that keeps us awake is not the jihadi but the immigrants. In their frightened and bewildered faces, we see the true evil of every Guantánamo: the conceit that some among us are less than human. That is the great American nightmare. 

Joe Margulies is a professor at Cornell University and was lead counsel in Rasul v. Bush, the first post-9/11 case involving prisoners at Guantánamo. Today, he represents Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner tortured in a CIA black site and the prisoner for whose interrogation the torture memos were written.