Remember Guantanamo!

Jan 262004
Authors: Brent Ables

We Americans believe that we have a lot to worry about these

days. Whether we are bothered by the threat of terrorism or the

aggressive response to it or both, there is no doubt that many do

not sleep as soundly as they did only a few years ago. It is,

unfortunately, all too easy in such a situation to think about

ourselves to the extent that we all but forget those in the world

who have been harmed severely, and possibly unnecessarily, in the

crossfire of the War on Terror.

In this category of victims, the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay

rank highly. The military prison at Guantanamo is a thing many have

heard of and read about in passing, but the details are hazy. Who

are these prisoners? Why were they arrested? When will they be

released? The answers to these questions may not be at all what we

think they are.

The Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba is “home” to approximately

700 prisoners, most of them rounded up within months after the

Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They come from Afghanistan and Pakistan

primarily, but together the prisoners have claimed heritage to over

40 different nations; characteristically, this is one of many

unclear details about those in the complex. President Bush’s

executive administration, on it’s own accord and against enormous

international and internal criticism, has kept the prisoners in

Guantanamo for nearly two years without bringing forward any

charges, while also denying them access to lawyers, visits with

their families or friends, information about their incarceration,

news about the outside world and the ability to challenge their

detentions in U.S. courts.

How has the administration been able to do this? The short

answer is that these prisoners have been officially designated

“enemy combatants” and thus are entitled – supposedly – to no

rights whatsoever, not even the rights of Prisoners of War. Taking

advantage of the broad lenience of the judicial and legislative

branches in the post- Sept. 11, 2001, world, Bush, Attorney General

John Ashcroft and others in the executive branch (including

military leaders) were able to arrest a wide variety of suspicious

characters at will. Even if those arrested had only loose or

circumstantial links to terrorism (a wide-ranging category in

itself) or none at all, the administration has claimed the

unprecedented right to indefinitely detain the “combatants” for the

duration of the “War on Terror.”

For those readers who wonder why the indefinite detainment of

terrorists is such a problem, let me make this point very clear:

these men may not be terrorists. It is possible, of course, that

some are. But that’s just the problem: there is no way for us to


The administration has refused to release any detailed

information whatsoever on these men, even to their families. Only

the International Red Cross and select journalists have been

allowed to visit the facility, though very few have spoken to the

prisoners themselves. Thus, a wall has been created: the prisoners

cannot speak to the world, and the world has no access to the

prisoners. Despite the fact that proving these men to actually be

guilty of crimes would help the government’s case, they have

instead gone to great legal and practical lengths to withhold

information. This should be suspicious, to say the least.

These prisons, furthermore, are not the relatively humane places

Americans are used to. The prisoners live in small mesh cages and

are exercised rarely and without any sort of consistency. They have

no access to libraries – not to mention newspapers or television –

or human beings besides their fellow prisoners and the military

guards. Depression and ill health is the rule rather than the

exception. Numerous suicide attempts have been documented. All of

this is relatively unsurprising when one considers that, as far as

any of those detained in Guantanamo know, they may be living in

these conditions for the rest of their lives. More observations

made by the International Committee of the Red Cross’s visit to the

camp can be found at

Challenges have been brought by some of the handful of released

prisoners, along with civil rights groups and legal organizations,

some including former attorneys working at Guantanamo. Thus far,

federal courts have issued mixed opinions on the legality of the

detainment. The Supreme Court (to the surprise of many) recently

rejected one legal appeal, but has agreed to rule on another in the


Liberals, conservatives, pro-war or antiwar, there is not a one

of us who favors the detainment of even one innocent man, much less

hundreds. We must not let ourselves be so concerned about our own

troubles that we forget to speak up for those who have no power to

do so for themselves. If evidence is given that these men are

indeed guilty of supporting or participating in terrorism, let

justice be done. But until at least this much is done, we must

adhere to that noble standard by which humans must be judged in a

just world: innocent until proven guilty.

Brent is a sophomore studying philosophy. His columns can be

read every Tuesday.

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