Speech from the January 9, 2014 event at All Souls Church in NYC
There are two pertinent questions which demand answers if we are to force the U.S. to close the illegal torture camp at Guantánamo, and go on to end indefinite detention by the United States.
Why did the Bush regime open it in 2002 in a U.S. military base set in Guantánamo Bay on a colonized piece of Cuban land seized from Cuba at the culmination of its war of independence from Spain, known here as the Spanish-American War, in 1898?
And why are sections of the U.S. ruling class holding onto this prison so tightly, even expanding its infrastructure, that Obama’s six year old promise to close it has become a cruel joke to most of the men who were there when he campaigned in 2008?
In the frenzy of the so-called “war on terror” framed for public consumption by the Bush Regime, those of you over 25 or so remember some things we saw in 2001: sweeps of men who appeared to be Muslim off streets from Brooklyn to Karachi, deported and detained.
What was then invisible was a quickly thrown together network of U.S. secret prisons across Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East, with “ghost” CIA planes rendering men grabbed in one country to be tortured or disappeared in another. Men from dozens of countries were moved around the world secretly; we know of more than 100 killed in U.S. custody from Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib.
“Dick” Cheney, Bush’s vice president and henchman, talked of a war that would last “generations,” and said the U.S. had to be ready to go to the “dark side” using, “basically, any means necessary to achieve our objectives.”
Less than four months after 9/11, the Bush regime announced that it was opening a prison camp at its base in Cuba to house the “worst of the worst,” enemies of the United States.
Almost 800 men were sent there, most haphazardly as a result of the U.S. offering $5,000 bribes to warlords and others to turn in pilgrims, farmers, and some would-be fighters (including some originally trained and funded by the U.S. against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan). Three of these prisoners were 13-15 years old.
Thanks to Chelsea Manning for leaking the Guantánamo Detainee Assessment Briefs, and to Andy Worthington for analyzing them, we know with certainty that very few of the men should ever have been taken by the U.S., much less held for twelve years now without any justice.
Why Guantánamo Bay? Because the U.S. government considered it “outside U.S. legal jurisdiction” ― meaning that the laws and rights supposedly guaranteed to prisoners, including “prisoners of war,” would not apply.
While they imprisoned many more men, and tortured and killed secretly in Bagram, Afghanistan and black sites around the world, the U.S. needed a place to openly defy international norms. CIA operatives “joked” that the name for Guantánamo’s prison should be “Strawberry Fields” because the U.S. could hold prisoners there “forever,” as the Beatles song goes.
Sometime during the Bush years, World Can’t Wait activists were in an African American high school class in Chicago, speaking about Guantánamo. The teacher asked the students, “Why do you think Bush set up Guantánamo?” One of the activists told me recently that a kid in the back of the room raised his hand, and said, “LYNCHING.”
When the teacher asked why he made that comparison, he answered, “When Black people were lynched in the South, it wasn’t so much what any one person had done. Lynching was done to terrorize everyone and keep the system of Jim Crow in place.”
So from that wise young man, himself living in the epicenter of mass incarceration, with the U.S. being Jailer #1, we get the essence: Guantánamo the prison camp was intended not just to imprison captives but to send a message to the entire world that the U.S. could do whatever it wants to whomever it wants.
Guantánamo was not a “mistake” of Bush going too far, and it’s not something that can be moved or mended with reforms. The word Guantánamo has become synonymous with torture, unjust detention, brutality, and inhumane degradation. Some forces in the U.S. ruling class are fine with that; others like Obama may find it inconvenient or embarrassing. But it’s a system problem, not a politician problem.
But why? A friend who works every day on closing Guantánamo asked me about a month ago, why, really, it’s not being closed. She said, “I know it’s not being kept open just to enrich private contractors. Do you think it has something to do with imperialism?”
Yes, ma’am, I do. The U.S. has global ambitions and interests – not the same as our interests – which demand extension of its empire of capitalist-imperialist globalization to massively exploit billions around the world. This is what the huge military is to protect; this is what the mirage of “democracy” covers for. Controlling the Middle East, and keeping other powers from controlling it, is key to their strategy.
The U.S. and its wars are reacting to the increasing instability in the Middle East/Central Asian regions. The spread of Islamic fundamentalism is a destabilizing pole of opposition to U.S. empire ― and an ideology putting itself forward as an alternative to U.S.-led capitalist globalization and bourgeois democracy.
These Islamic forces ― which are completely reactionary and represent the old order, both feudal and bourgeois ― don’t fundamentally oppose foreign capital, and they are horrible for the people, especially women, but their interests clash in various ways, and often sharply, with the U.S. and its regional clients.
To be clear, the U.S. itself has done far more damage, with its little weekly 9/11s in the region, with every drone strike and with the destruction of two whole countries. The wars fought to destroy Iraq & Afghanistan, and which are spreading into Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and further into Africa, are illegitimate, unjust and immoral, utilizing torture and indefinite detention as a way of terrorizing whole populations.
As we’ve learned seven months ago, they are backing this up with vast surveillance of whole populations, without apology.
But why hasn’t Obama followed through on his promise to close the camp? It may even be that the promise was genuine, in that Guantánamo doesn’t fit with the image, in opposition to Bush, of a multicultural, diverse imperialism. But we know Obama has had no trouble ordering targeted killing, whether or not Congress agreed (and they do).
One reason Obama essentially ignored the status of Guantánamo for so long — until the hunger strike of 2013 — is because he has directed U.S. policy to focus on killing, not capturing, those targeted by the U.S. as opponents ― especially through the use of drones.
John Bellinger, himself a war criminal and an official in the Bush administration who helped draw up the initial U.S. policy on use of drones, recently said, “This government has decided that instead of detaining members of al-Qaida [at Guantánamo], they are going to kill them.” And these drone strikes during the years of Obama’s presidency have killed thousands of people, many of them civilians, including children.
Whatever their needs, we should NOT back off on demanding Obama and Congress release ALL the cleared prisoners immediately, so that Guantánamo doesn’t remain a Yemeni detention center. We should continue to demand that those men whom the administration says they will neither charge, try, nor release — and we know this is because they were tortured — should be charged, given fair trials, or released.
We demand an end to indefinite detention in our name. And those secret military commissions — the tribunals Obama says were an improvement on the Bush commissions — are no damn good, either!
I must add a note, based on discussion with many students who are cynical after having lived only during the Bush & Obama years. All societies do not torture. Torture is not a part of a non-existent “human nature.” Human societies can do better, and outlaw it, and never use it, for real.
Reading from the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, Draft Proposal, in a long section on the rights liberties of the people, this promise of a new society — from Bob Avakian’s party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, says, on page 74: “Cruel and unusual punishment, including torture, shall be prohibited.” This document also abolishes the death penalty, and envisions not mass incarceration, but a system of liberation.
Contrast that with a system where in the White House, leaders discuss what extremes — like cutting the penis of Binyam Mohammed — they can get away with. Where the president makes lists of who gets killed, and runs a system of plausible deniability when thousands of civilians are killed. Where this revolting mass popular culture idolizes an NYC born actress who plays a CIA agent on Homeland, and where millions hung on every episode of 24 — and which is coming back on air.
12 years after the prison camp/torture center was founded, the message the world is receiving from Guantánamo is not of the American empire’s invincibility, but of its limitless cruelty.
The 100 plus men hunger striking on the verge of death, strapped into chairs with tubes shoved into and yanked out of their bodies, locked in cages in a remote prison camp, have brought to millions a focused picture of the hideous features of American “justice.”
They have shown that even in the most arduous and unbearable of circumstances it is possible to stand up to the swaggering might of the American military.
The real interests of the vast majority of people in this country are to oppose the crimes of the U.S. empire ― to stop thinking like Americans and start thinking about humanity, and to act on that conviction.
We are not giving up on the mission of closing this open insult to humanity that is Guantánamo.
Speaking for World Can’t Wait, we will unite with everyone — with those who worked for the U.S. government as lawyers, guards, and soldiers, but who criticized and broke with the torture state;
with revolutionaries & others consciously working to bring about a different world;
with those so young that they don’t remember the Bush years;
with those prisoners locked in the American gulag who know all too well the torture of solitary confinement,
and with the billions around the world who really know that the world can’t wait.
Debra Sweet is the Director of World Can’t Wait.