The Stories We Tell: Guantanamo Bay In Normative American History And The Present

OpEd By Maha Hilal

Two days ago, President Obama revealed his plan to finally close Guantanamo Bay.   Numerous critiques of his plan have emerged, including the continuation of indefinite detention that is embedded in his plan to move detainees into domestic prisons. While the fate of the prison remains in limbo, the narrative that has been and continues to be used by the American government represents a departure from what we know to be true about the US adherence to the rule of law among many others issues. In order to challenge these different “truths,” I offer some thoughts below which stem from President Obama’s speech on closing Guantanamo.

  • Guantanamo does not advance our national security and advances propaganda. In other words, we need not worry about the fact that human rights abuses targeting an exclusively Muslim male population have been evidenced time and time again. Muslims can never be legitimate victims because we have to fear that their victimhood will provoke anger. Thus, we cannot mourn their lives in captivity or their early deaths because whatever state we find their bodies in is only relevant to US security. They are subhuman collateral damage.
  • Guantanamo stains our reputation as a beacon of human rights. This statement is reminiscent of a Ghanaian proverb that says, “Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story.” This narrative has always been built by power. Where is the US seen as a true leader in human rights? In the US. If other countries followed our path of “human rights,” the world would never see a peaceful day again at anytime or in any place. The continued assertion of this claim is different than the actual fulfilling of it.
  • The United States is a country marked by the rule of law. Accountability is an essential component of the rule of law. Thus, you cannot at once have known individuals guilty of committing crimes and who evade legal accountability while still claiming a system based on the rule of law. This necessarily includes government officials from the Abu Ghraib scandal to torture and murder in Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. If what we have in the United States is the rule of law, then the rule of law should be re-defined as a system of state violence sanctioned through the use of law. This was embodied in President Bush’s and now President Obama’s presidency; that is laws that are newly created and/or re-written so that abuses occur as legal actions. Thus, law is not broken, but more properly noted as corrupted; the former making it exponentially more difficult to challenge.
  • Bush wanted to close Guantanamo Bay. Well here’s the thing; his administration is the one that opened the prison. So when President Obama gave credit to Bush in his recent speech for wanting to close the infamous prison, he effectively promoted a war criminal who opened a facility designed to re-invent legal boundaries in the treatment of dehumanized Muslims. Government is the problem, not the solution.
  • We need to place significant restrictions on released prisoners to keep them from returning to the battlefield. Some of these “battlefields” were neighbors’ homes where communities began to turn each other in to receive bounties. Others were simply captured for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what’s the common link? Collective responsibility and the criminalization of the Muslim identity. Crimes get you into prison, but being Muslim can too. But never mind this point, because the US has demonstrated time and time again that Muslim countries are battlefields; well battlefields in the sense of US intervention that operates by invading, occupying and destroying lands. That’s how your neighbor’s home, your family’s farm, etc. become “battlefields.”
  • Closing Guantanamo Bay will close an unfortunate chapter in American history. Until Guantanamo Bay closes, the story won’t end. But neither will the story end if Guantanamo does close because the thing is that the book hasn’t ended. The book of US state violence spanning from Latin America to Africa will continue. The War on Terror with it nebulous and never-ending obtuse goals will never be over; at least not until the US isn’t consumed with gaining power, money, and global control. Many Guantanamo Bay prisoners will continue to be imprisoned, thus existing as a present reminder of the crimes of the War on Terror and those released will continue to exist as living collateral damage. These stories will effectively become the next chapter in the War on Terror, not the end of the book.
  • We need to apply the lessons we’ve learned in US history. For the casual observer, it may seem as though the US has genuinely become a country committed to human rights and committed to improving its record. To those paying close attention, the only lessons the US seems to have learned is to do better at hiding your tracks. Or to blame the victim for the violence they’ve incurred. After all, it was the fault of dead Afghans for provoking marines to urinate on their bodies. And it’s their fault that other Muslims got angry.

If you still think the story of Guantanamo ends here, it doesn’t. It may just be getting a new beginning using “lessons learned,” to manufacture a new narrative to sanction the next installment of egregious abuses in the War on Terror.

Dr.  Maha Hilal is the Executive Director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, an organization dedicated to addressing civil and human rights abuses related to preemptive prosecutions and thoughts crimes in the War on Terror. She is also an Islamophobia consultant for the Team Baluchi Defense Team of the Office of the Chief of Defense, where she supports research on disparities in the legal system that Muslims face, such as selective prosecutions. Lastly, Maha is currently a Career Development Officer with the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition where she helps survivors obtain meaningful employment.  Maha earned her doctorate last May from the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University in Washington, D.C. The title of her dissertation is “Too damn Muslim to be trusted”: The War on Terror and the Muslim American response.  She received her Master’s Degree in Counseling and her Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked at a number of human rights/social justice organizations including the Center for Victims of Torture, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and the Government Accountability Project. Maha was previously a Christine Mirzayan Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences as well as a recipient of the Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship for Arabic study in Morocco. 


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One response to “The Stories We Tell: Guantanamo Bay In Normative American History And The Present”

  1. Avatar Helen Schietinger says:

    I appreciate Dr. Hilal’s clarity in naming the fallacies and myths behind the government story line. We hear the pat phrases about Guantanamo and the “war on terror” so often, from so many angles — mainstream media, politicians, government officials — that they become true to us no matter how irrational they first seemed.

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