Meet the new year, same as the old year. Sure, COVID-45 numbers continue to explode, now over 22 million confirmed cases with record new numbers of cases and deaths. But is the new year the same? Not exactly... we had the soon to be erstwhile "President" literally incite a riot directed at the United States Capitol, where the Vice President and a joint session of Congress were meeting to officially pronounce Joe Biden as the next President. The repercussions of this event, where thousands of pro-Trump rioters were permitted to enter the United States Capitol and came within a few feet of members of Congress in a melee that has left at least six people dead (including two police officers) will not be resolved anytime soon. Indeed, House Democrats have already introduced Articles of Impeachment for incitement to insurrection. With less than nine days left in Trump's term, they are meant as a deterrent to future political plans, rather than meaningfully to remove him from Office, but that they are necessary (and a significant majority polled want Trump removed immediately) even after an unsuccessful impeachment attempt just one year ago is remarkable. But then, that's where we are.
Alrighty then! I managed to bury the lede by not mentioning what this piece is actually about through the entire first paragraph! Today marks 19 years since the ignominious opening of the military prison for Muslim men and boys at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Our dear friend Andy, who would usually be visiting with us during his stay in New York is, of course, unable to make the trip from London this year as a result of the COVID-45 outbreak on both sides of the Atlantic. But Andy offers a number of on-line events to commemorate this grim anniversary.
And we can observe that there remain 40 men at Guantanamo (some held there for the entire 19 year period), and six of whom are cleared for release after an internal multi-agency executive branch review that concluded that they pose no threat to the United States, other than that Donald Trump likes the idea of holding people of color as prisoners. One of those prisoners (a "forever prisoner" meaning he is not cleared for release, but has not been charged with any crime either), Razak Ali a/k/a Saeed Bakhouche from Algeria, has been ably represented by our friend Candace for well over a decade. Recently, Candace and our friends at the Center for Constitutional Rights filed an application for review by the United States Supreme Court. That Court has not taken a Guantanamo related case since the Boumediene case in 2008, but one hopes.
And so, why, with all of the insanity that seems to be going on around us (complete with the ongoing COVID plague, which has killed close to 2 million people worldwide including nearly 400,000 in the US), do I still even bring up a far off American Devil's island holding 40 men who probably did really bad things (even if only one of them has actually been convicted of anything, and that conviction only after the defendant stood mute)? Because GTMO was, is, and will always be a demonstration project of just what the American empire can get away with.
And let's face it: GTMO has it all in a little corner of Cuba, tucked somewhere near an "Anytown, USA" military base featuring fast food, a high school and a small town full of service personnel and their dependents. And I mean all. A testament to American arbitrary mass incarceration (at its peak, the prison held well over 700 men, although well over 700 men have been released, leaving the 40 unfortunates and "high value" detainees to their fates). A testament to our global empire built on military force, which is everywhere, and still wasn't able to capture bin Laden or the al Qaeda leadership, and instead "Hoovered" up hundreds of Muslim men and boys, mostly handed over by local warlords, the Pakistani government, or others, usually in exchange for cash bounties, rather than "captured on the battlefield" (a surprisingly rare occurrence for GTMO prisoners). A testament to our penchant for misinformation that most Americans don't know these facts, or even that GTMO is still open for business. A testament to cruelty, as of course, open ended detention is itself torture, as is waterboarding and other "coercive" interrogation measures, ongoing force-feeding for many prisoners, and who knows what actual torture goes on. Plus, of course, the farce of the American legal system, in this case, "military commissions" that have yet to try a single "high value detainee" (or for that matter, anyone who did not take a guilty plea except for one man who stood mute), over 19 years after 9-11 (and indeed, only 10 or so of the 40 prisoners are deemed subject to the commissions, meaning the majority will never be even charged let alone tried). This is because the commissions are more about covering up American torture (while still having the audacity to try to use "evidence" obtained through torture in the proceedings) than they are about "justice." And yet, on and on they go. And good old Islamophobia (every detainee is a Muslim), xenophobia (and a foreign national) and racism (most prisoners are of course people of color). And I could go on.
To his immense discredit, former President Barack Obama campaigned on closing GTMO, issued an executive order promising to close it on his second day in office... and then spent eight years dithering, until, of course... he left 41 prisoners for Donald Trump. Team Obama just wasn't willing to invest the political capital to fulfill one of his most visible campaign promises, and quite frankly, unlike many other things, a campaign promise entirely within his authority to fulfill. We can't say that about Donald Trump, who promised to keep GTMO open and filled with "bad dudes" (though even he released a single prisoner, whose commission sentence was up).
In just over a week, Joe Biden takes over, without much promise or fanfare about anything except (1) not being Donald Trump and (2) getting COVID under control. Perhaps he can rectify his former boss's failure, and close GTMO himself. There are off-the-shelf plans to do it. Will it solve everything wrong with the US of A and good old American Exceptionalism? Unlikely, of course.
But as an aspirational matter, an act of justice and mercy that three prior administrations proved incapable of, it would be a strong message that the American system is capable of some level of integrity, something that we now have 19 years and counting of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps a new year and a new administration will lead to a new outcome? Hope springs eternal.