Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On a Sun-Kissed Island - Where We Tortured People

This is what you think of first.
Or maybe this.
But there's also this.
And this.
And of course, there's this.
All of it is Guantánamo Bay.
  • Torture chamber.
  • Prison camp.
  • Caribbean port.
  • Naval Base.
And oh, yeah, there's also this.
Because, of course, Guantánamo Bay, and our naval base there, is part of Cuba.
After the Spanish American War, when we wrested as spoils Puerto Rico and Hawaii and Guam and the Phillipines, we allowed Cuba a narrowly circumscribed autonomy, turning it into something of a vassal state.  Really, a colony.  And we made Guantánamo ours.
Sometimes sleepy, sometimes volatile, sometimes prison camp.
But ours.  For better or worse.
Before Castro, when the Bay (and the base) was part of our Cuban fiefdom.
After Castro, when the Kennedy administration considered plans to make him invade the base (or appear to - in a weird preview of what the Johnson administration would do with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident - so we'd have an excuse to invade.
Lately, of course, it's been for worse.
January 11 marked the 10 year anniversary of the opening of Camp X-Ray, the day the first prisoners (more delicately called "detainees") arrived at the concentration camp.  But we'd been there for 100 years by then.  And we'd detained and kept behind concertina wire tens of thousands of people who'd done nothing wrong.  And we tortured them.
We'd thought for decades that our base in Guantánamo Bay was a place that no law could reach.  It was part of Cuba, but Cuba had no authority.  But it was part of Cuba, so our courts had no authority.  Or so we believed.  And so the courts had mostly ended up agreeing.
So, really, if you want to hold prisoners without having to justify it. And if you want to torture them without anybody looking over your shoulder.  And if you want to keep them without due process or lawyers or courts or reporters.  And if you want to carefully circumscribe the whole damn thing.  
A naval base that we absolutely control on an island in the middle of the Caribbean that is a country that we treat as an enemy.
Really, what could be better?  Just ask John Yoo.  But he came late to the game that began decades ago.
There are some really good, seriously troubling books about what we've done at Gitmo in the last 10 years.  For reportage, there's Jane Mayer's The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.  From lawyers who represented the prisoners, there's Joseph Margulies's Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power and Clive Stafford Smith's Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice in Guantánamo Bay.  From the officers stationed there, there's James Yee's For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism under Fire and Erik Saar's Insided the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier's Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantánamo.  Many others, too.
But they're books of a decade.  There's no shortage of context, but it's the context of permanent war on a tactic, of the Shrub administration's enthusiastic abandonment of any respect for civil liberties because we'll give up all our liberty to preserve our liberty.
Except, again, it wasn't just Bush II.
It was Bush I.  And Clinton.  And Eisenhower.  And Kennedy.  And Nixon.  And - you get the idea.
And our involvement in Guantánamo, it turns out, goes back at least as far as Lawrence Washington, half brother to George.
You don't learn all of that from the daily papers (or the Daily Show), or from any of those books I mentioned before, good as they are.  To get the history and the historical context, to see how what we've done at Guantánamo isn't an artifact only of an administration committed to the proposition that, as Condoleezza Rice said, echoing Tricky Dick (which really should have been a clue), 
When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.
And it's racism writ broad and deep and ingrained in a faux Donna Reed Show world.
For that understanding, and for the downright interesting details that go with it, you have to turn to Jonathan M. Hansen's terrific new book, Guantánamo: An American History.  (Note to the Feds: A gift from my son, not the publisher or author or a bookseller.)
Where else will you read the story of Charles Ryan.  He was 19 when his father was posted to Guantánamo, and went along.  But while living on the base, he came to join the Cuban resistance, smuggling guns and ammunition and along with two friends from the base joining Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries in their hideout in the Sierra Maestra mountains?
And where else will you get the context?
Here's Hansen, on part of the book's website.
After centuries, literally, of salivating over Cuba and Guantanamo Bay, we took the bay from newly independent Cuba, forcing the initial lease down Cuba’s throat. We exploited the bay to promote US commercial interests in Cuba over the interest of, especially black Cubans, settled in southeast Cuba; during the Cold War, we contemplated and sometimes launched secret and illegal operations against the Cuban government from Guantanamo Bay.
In short, the history of Guantanamo Bay reveals the complexity, the ambiguity of American history and refutes the idea that America had any grace to fall from. Grace has never been what nation-making is about, not American nation-making, not anybody else’s, notwithstanding the nation’s many acts of generosity and its noble founding principles.
I want to be crystal clear about this: those principles were, from the very beginning, shot through with paradox and contradiction, and Guantanamo’s history enables us to see this paradox in stark relief. Focus solely on recent political and legal decisions taken at or about Guantanamo does not begin to get at that complexity.
From the vantage point of history, in other words, post 9/11 Guantanamo is not a freakish departure from American history. Guantanamo out Americas America, in sociological, cultural, political, and legal ways. Guantanamo is part of who we are. 
All of which goes some to explain just why it is that for all his promises and commitments to shut down Gitmo, His Barakness is no more willing or able to do it than Shrub.  And if the formal torture stopped there - and it apparently did well before the end of the Bush presidency - Obama has stridently resisted efforts to examine who did and what they did and certainly to hold anyone accountable.  But he did say that he knows we treated Bradley Manning just fine because his captors said so.
Because in Cuba, and really, throughout this great land and frankly the rest of the world, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  The past really is prologue.
Hansen helps us see that.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting read. I bet there are a lot more of politics and history in Gitmo than we'll ever know, and I'm glad that this book came up to provide us some understanding on that place.