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Guantanamo: In The Public Eye

Karen Greenberg is the Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law.  Her newest book, The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days, is a gripping narrative account of the first 100 days at Guantanamo and an analysis of how this time set up patterns of power that would come to dominate the Bush administration’s overall strategy in the “War on Terror.”  In the post below she reflects on the general public’s perception of Guantanamo.

Two nights ago at dinner, the conversation turned, as it often does when I’m there, to the topic of detention at Guantanamo. A couple from a small town outside of Chicago shook their heads as someone else mentioned the camp’s closing. “What?” They said in unison. “Are you kidding us? The country won’t stand for that. They’ll be an uproar. For certain.” I have to admit I was somewhat startled. It was a piercing reminder that those of us who follow the detention, interrogation and torture story can talk among ourselves so much that we can lose touch with what may be a significant section of the American public.

Last night, the National Geographic Channel aired its two-hour special on Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. It aired in between episodes of a show entitled “The World’s Toughest Prisons.” In fact, programming for the entire afternoon and evening was about prisons. The producers and writers of “Inside Guantanamo,” pitched their story at those who might know very little about Guantanamo. Not meant to be a news story, the show presented an overview of life at Guantanamo Bay. We saw several guards talking about their experiences. We watched some of them talk through the door – always patiently in this version – with the detainees. We heard individual military men and women talking about their patriotism and the values of detaining these detainees. We heard from several of the defense attorneys. Bradford Berenson stood in for the Bush administration to discuss the legal and policy matters. These interviews touched the surface of the major themes of Guantanamo – its extra-legal status, the deterioration of the detainees psychologically after seven years of incarceration without legal remedy, the perceived fragility of the country by government officials. All of this gave illustration to a story that has been out there for a while, although the major players from the Bush administration were not interviewed. As such, it was a reliable overview of the major events in US detention policy at Guantanamo as structured by the decisions of the Supreme Court.

Much more interesting to my mind were the interviews with the detainees. Like the choice of officials from DC and from the military, the selection seemed to come down to those who were willing to talk. These detainees, now freed, were neither angry nor particularly provocative in their comments. What was particularly striking was that they were used to counter the stories of the guards who rotate in and out of Guantanamo, and to give credence to the stories of the lawyers. The detainees have yet to have a voice in this narrative – one outside of that provided by their lawyers – so it was fascinating to get a wider glimpse of their state of mind after Guantanamo.

The texture of the film was that of reality TV – and perhaps this too was an attempt to reach a certain viewer. The sound was rough, the footage often lingered, waiting for someone to do something, for example in response to a detainee who had placed a towel over his cell window. The result was to give the audience a sense of the noise that can happen at times, and to make the viewer feel for the guards – a particular theme throughout the show. So, too, there was footage of how dedicated the military was to humane treatment, telling new guards that it was important to treat the detainees like human beings. And there was an attempt throughout to make the reader have some sympathy for the guards. Sergeant Smith, on whom the the episode focuses throughout, tells us, she was “petrified beyond belief” when she found out she was coming to Guantanamo to guard actual terrorists.

Looking at the larger picture, the narrator emphasized what human rights advocates and others have documented – that many of these detainees were not captured on the battlefield, but were traded to the Americans for sizable bounties by tribal factions. In the words of the narrator, “hundreds of men were exchanged for millions of dollars.” So, too, Berenson admits “ it was hard to tell who was who,” who was guilty and who was innocent.

Rather than give us an authoritative story, the balancing act of “Inside Guantanamo” merely documents the wrong-headedness of this whole affair. There is no reality check – attempted somewhat by presenting the detainees’ voices – no journalist who has covered the field, no policy maker who made a difference at the time, no authority, to help the viewer know how to assess what he or she is witnessing. Instead, there is something for everyone – those who support the facility, those who don’t. those who think these are the worst of the worst who should not be let out, and those vociferously opposed to the detention facility on grounds of the rule of law, not to mention morality.

Perhaps the best example of this attempt to show all sides, and the impossibility of such an endeavor on this topic, is the comment by one guard who lets us know that “if I found myself as a prisoner –of –war, I’d wanted to be treated….fairly.” Rather than a sign of understanding the situation as the comment is intended by the show’s producers, it is a sign of the larger problem of individuals at all levels of the process not understanding the context in which they have been placed. These detainees are not now and never were prisoners-of-war. Still, today, there remains all too little appreciation of what we have sacrificed by creating an extralegal detention facility, which not only deprives individuals, many innocent, of their liberty, but which deprives American citizens of comprehending the difference between following the law and creating a lawless zone.

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