“A captive does not possess any realistic means to send his messages to the world other than to strike . . . Freedom should be much more precious for the human being than all the desires on earth. And we should never give it up regardless of how expensive the price may be.” – Tariq Ba Odah, Detainee at Guantánamo Bay, Cleared for Release in 2009.
“Given a choice, I will build the life that I imagine in a new country. When I think of freedom, I think of a new country, a place where I can have my own independent life, where there are opportunities, where the security situation is better and where education is important . . . I have a bright vision of my future. It is all that I think about, I am asking for the chance to make my vision a reality.” – Ghaleb Nassar Al-Bihani, Detainee at Guantánamo Bay, Cleared for Release in 2014.
January 11, 2015 – a broad coalition of human rights activists, diverse faith leaders, Guantánamo lawyers, torture survivors and the families of 9-11 victims met at the White House to call for the long-overdue end to operations at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp.
The rally, “A Promise Still to Keep: Close Guantánamo, Stop Torture, and End Indefinite Detention,” marked the thirteenth anniversary of the infamous facility’s operation. The rally called on our leaders to finally fulfill their promises to close the facility, to properly charge and try those that are guilty of criminal acts and to allow those who are known to be innocent to return to their families.
Holding prisoners even after their innocence is known is a clear moral abomination. Let alone that the Guantánamo facility has been used to develop new extremes of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ and let alone that other techniques of torture, such as force-feeding have been used to control the prison facility.
“Hardship is the only language that is used here. Anybody who is able to die will be able to achieve happiness for himself, he has no other hope except that.” – Adnan Latif in a letter written to his lawyer.
Although the story of Guantanamo Bay is one of the most convincing testaments to the callousness in our society, the story of Guantánamo is also a story that contains astounding accounts of courage and hope. At the opening of this post I quoted two letters written by detainee Tariq Ba Odah. I did so because his story exemplifies the remarkable capacity of the human spirit to endure in dignity and hope. Mr. Ba Odah is a Yemeni man who was captured by the Pakistani government and sold for bounty to the United States. Shortly after his arrival at Guantánamo, he began a hunger strike to protest his unlawful and immoral detention. As of this date, Mr. Ba Odah reports that he has not tasted food in over seven years.
Many of the detainees at Guantánamo are held under similar circumstances. 52 of the detainees, including Mr. Ba Odah, have been cleared for transfer. They continue to be held solely because they are from Yemen.
While many of these men have clearly endured enormous hardship, and while their ability to resist and to survive has often been remarkable, it is important to remember that they are not angels. Most are just ordinary men who were caught up in this ugly and unjust system. As the speakers at the rally read from the letters from Guantánamo bay it became clear that the things these men are looking for are not abstract ideals, but very simple, very human needs. They want to see their families, , to learn how to practice carpentry, to work hard, to have an ordinary life, to help their children get an education, to be able to grow old in their own homes.
When we talk about these individuals in the public discourse, if we talk about them at all, we often erase their humanity along with their innocence in the process. It was in honor of these individuals, whose lives have been erased under the label of terrorist that the members of Witness Against Torture marched in full orange jumpsuits with heads covered in black hoods.
One of the most important points made at the rally was to illustrate the connection between the practice of profiling and the use of state violence in the war on terror and the recent Black Lives Matter movement recognizing and addressing state violence against people of color. There are chilling parallels regarding the practices used in prison and the deprivation of legal rights for each group. What lies at the heart of it though is “the toxic assumption that some lives matter more than others,” as put by Jeremy Varon of the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that no progress had been made, after all 642 of the 779 detainees have been transferred or released from Guantánamo, and after all our leaders have repeatedly promised that they are doing their best to close the facility.
Thirteen years, however, has been too long to wait.
You can see a series of videos taken at the rally, including video of several people reading the letters of the Guantánamo detainees here.