Just before Christmas, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis visited troops at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. This visit came after recent United Nations reports of torture there, but Mattis insisted he was only going to meet with the troops to thank them for their service. Pentagon spokesperson Major Ben Sakrisson confirmed that Mattis would not inspect detention facilities or discuss detainee policy.
Wouldn’t the Secretary of Defense be interested in the conditions of the world’s most infamous prison? Wouldn’t any CEO of his/her organization want to know what is happening on the ground, face to face?
It has been 16 years since another secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, visited GITMO, and since that time close to 800 prisoners have been held at the facility; 731 of these detainees were released without charges; 15 of them were children under the age of 18; and nine of them have died by suicide or other causes. According to Human Rights Watch, of the 41 detainees that remain at Guantanamo only seven—Abd-al-Rahim al-Nashri, Abd al Hadi al Iraqi and five September 11, 2001 co-defendants—face any formal charges.
Again, considering the facility’s history of torture, arrests without charges, locked up juveniles, and deaths of detainees, wouldn’t Mattis want to give the place a good look through? Or does the secretary not want to know what goes on there?
The fact remains that Guantanamo Bay is still one of the most effective propaganda tools in the world for militant Islamic fundamentalists. The maximum security prison, based in Cuba, was set up by the Bush administration in January 2002, in response to the attacks of 9/11.
But as former president Jimmy Carter has stated, “What has happened at Guantanamo Bay … does not represent the will of the American people.” He added: “I’m embarrassed about it, I think it’s wrong. I think it does give terrorists an unwarranted excuse to use despicable means to hurt innocent people.”
President Barack Obama made this case in even stronger terms. “I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength,” he said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend.”
Along with Carter and Obama, the majority of Americans know that keeping GITMO open is tactically misguided and blatantly immoral. Americans know that it gives terrorists an opportunity to say, “Why can’t we torture? You do.” And “Why can’t we hold prisoners without charge? You do.” It makes our entire constitutional system of due process look ridiculous.
After 16 years, why have we failed to muster the moral and political courage to shut down this global symbol of evil?
George Cassidy Payne of Rochester, New York, is a freelance writer, adjunct professor of philosophy and domestic violence counselor.