It’s exactly ten years today since a startled world saw those first images of 20 shackled, orange-suited detainees on their hands and knees between the chain-link pens at Guantánamo Bay. The detainees, you’ll recall, were shackled hand and foot, down in squat positions, with blacked-out goggles and ear muffs.
These unnamed men were, we were told, exceptionally dangerous. They were members of al-Qa’ida or at least terrorists bent on doing harm to the United States of America and its allies. Their dangerousness was implied by the way they were presented to the world that day in January 2002 and there were menacing briefings from the likes of General Richard Myers, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the detainees included vicious desperadoes so murderous they would “chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 [transport plane] down.”
It was bizarre. But this was happening just a few months after the absolute horror of the 9/11 attacks. Almost anything seemed possible. (This post from Julian Borger captures some of the extravagant oddness of one of the first media trips arranged by the US authorities to the then still obscure naval base).
But still, what on earth was the USA doing with this Guantánamo business …? As the days, months and then years unfolded, it became horribly clear that the USA had entered into something deeply sinister with Guantanamo (including the secret detentions and renditions that serviced the camp). To use a phrase of Barack Obama’s from a few years ago, the USA under George W Bush was conducting a “misguided experiment” with the rule of law.
Roll forward ten years. Something rather strange has happened. Guantánamo Bay has gone from being one of the key stories of our times (the key “war on terror” story) to something you hardly ever hear about. News-wise it’s become conspicuous by its absence. Which is peculiar when you consider that 171 people are still behind bars there (167 without any trial at all, four after unfair “military commissions”) and one of the world’s leading politicians (Obama) has failed to live up to a key election promise to close the camp after a year (he’s now two years overdue and counting …).
Guantánamo “fatigue” seems to have set in. Journalists, news editors – maybe even readers and viewers themselves – seem to have become tired of reporting on or hearing about the place. Or have they? I’m actually not sure. Maybe the complexity and seeming intractability of the situation has dampened media interest (see Carol Rosenberg’s article on some of the quite complicated domestic US politico-legal issues, plus the embedded Amnesty video on the “politics of fear” in the US, which also has some striking images of Guantánamo down the years). Whatever the case, it’s utterly unacceptable for the US administration to let this situation drift on.
Of the 171 men at GTMO it’s possible that some have committed serious criminal offences and should stand trial. That’s stand trial, not languish there indefinitely (the last two to leave were both dead when they came out of the camp, by the way: one apparently from natural causes; the other apparently as the result of suicide). The indefinite postponement of trials is itself an insult to the families of those who died on 9/11 and through other terrorist acts. And the continued failure to investigate and hold people responsible for torture at Guantánamo and elsewhere is another scandal (people like the torturers of Mohammed al-Qahtani, whose mistreatment has even been videotaped).
While the likes of Mitt Romney speak in favour of Guantánamo (he’s called for it to be doubled in size), you get the impression that its backers don’t much concern themselves with the legal niceties or indeed the human cost to that almost anonymous cohort in Cuba. So detainees like Shaker Aamer are almost certainly unknown to Romney and probably even to Obama. Perhaps if they realised that Aamer has been at Guantánamo for almost all of the ten years without a trial, has never been charged (and is seemingly not about to be), and is the subject of a request from the UK government for him to be released – then maybe they’d change their stance. (Please write to Hillary Clinton about Shaker’s case here and watch Kate Allen’s speak on his case, at the bottom of this post).
A final thought. Barack Obama has two children, Mitt Romney five. Shaker Aamer has four. Unlike these other more famous family men, Shaker has never been able to embrace his youngest child or to spend a single minute in his company. That’s because he’s trapped in the legal black hole known as Guantánamo.
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