George W Bush said on 14 June 2006 that he'd like to close the Guantánamo Bay detention centre, "but I also recognise that we're holding some people there that are darn dangerous, and that we better have a plan to deal with them in our courts."
Well, most of the world, and many Americans, also believe that there are some "darn dangerous" people running the White House these days, which is why Guantánamo is in the news again. Any day now the United States Supreme Court is expected to deliver its verdict in a case raised by Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni national who has been held at Guantánamo along with another 460 detainees. Hamdan is challenging the constitutionality of the American military "commissions", or special courts, that were established to try him and other "unlawful combatants".
Also by Rami Khouri in openDemocracy:
"Abu Ghraib in the Arab mirror" (October 2004)
"Democracy from America? An Arab's advice" (March 2005)
"How to beat terrorism: lessons of an Arab journey" (July 2005)
It is important to distinguish the two very different strands that define the Hamdan case and the larger issue of the Guantánamo detainees. On the one hand are the fine points of law, and on the other is the more blunt projection of American power globally. It can be hard to separate these two issues, due to the devastating emotional and political impact of terrorism. The crimes and wilful inhumanity of 9/11 were so severe that this American government believes it can do anything it wishes to capture and punish the perpetrators, regardless of international or American law.
The Guantánamo Bay detention facility and its key questionable attributes the treatment of prisoners, the lack of due process of law protections, the special "trials" the prisoners will be given do not emanate from a political vacuum. They reflect a wider attitude among the Bush administration that savages sovereign foreign lands and sacred American constitutional traditions at the same time. Guantánamo is a place; but it is also a political mindset that defines the Bush White House and touches the lives of billions of people around the world. The Guantánamo mindset that has guided Washington's policies since 9/11 is the unfortunate consequence of an unprecedented convergence of anger, fear, ignorance and power.
The anger, understandably, is a result of the 9/11 attacks. The fear that Americans felt that day has been grotesquely cultivated by the Bush White House as an enduring foundation for partisan politics at home and something approaching lynchings and posse justice as a foreign policy.
Ignorance defines how the Bush folks woefully misdiagnosed two key things: the nature, causes and aims of the terror that was directed against their land five years ago; and the cultural and political landscapes of the Arab-Asian region where they have deployed their army in strength. Power, finally, is the asset that the United States has in greatest supply, especially military, technological and economic power, but that it has used in an erratic and often counter-productive way. Not surprisingly, most governments and people around the world today fear the consequences of American foreign policy.
Also on Guantánamo in openDemocracy:
David Rose, "Guantánamo: America's war on human rights" (September 2004)
Clive Stafford Smith, "Torture: an idea for our time" (August 2005)
Harold Hongju Koh, "Captured by Guantánamo" (September 2005)
Brandt Goldstein, "Storming the Supreme Court: a students' odyssey"
(September 2005 )
Brandt Goldstein, "Guantánamo: land without law" (September 2005)
Isabel Hilton, "Guantánamo: the United States's torture" (November 2005)
"Guantánamo: the inside story" Isabel Hilton interviews Clive Stafford Smith (November 2005)
Guantánamo captures the dilemma of this land and culture with impressive values that are distorted and momentarily diminished by the convergent furies of its own anger, fear, ignorance and power. Since 9/11 the American government has done many strange things, for a democratic beacon on a hill:
- waged unilateral wars
- changed regimes at will
- generated false and ideologically-driven proof of imminent threats
- mangled its own intelligence agencies
- tapped the communications of its own citizens without securing required court orders
- ignored the will of the world at the United Nations
- held hundreds of detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere without giving them the due process of law
- abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other such centres
- sent prisoners around the world for torture and mistreatment
- continued to threaten countries if they do not fall in line
- turned a blind eye to Arab and Asian despots and dictators who cooperate with its "global war on terror".
Guantánamo and its mindset is all of this and more, and seems distinctly un-American, which is why the judiciary has been called in to sort things out. The Supreme Court intervened in June 2004 to overrule George W Bush's November 2001 executive order authorising indefinite detention of suspected terrorists or any other "bad guys", without due process of law (i.e., detainees having a lawyer, being formally charged in court, or being told the accusations and evidence against them). The court affirmed that, according to international law and the American constitution, the Guantánamo detainees must be given access to American courts of law to challenge their detention and trials.
This is why so many of us out here in the swamp of the middle east still admire America and wish to emulate so many of its core principles. When the chips are down, the law is what matters; and the single most important operative principle of law is that it applies equally to all human beings in the land or in its custody.
The Supreme Court's decision on Guantánamo will show American culture at its best, defining and affirming the rule of law and also curbing the political excesses of an enraged executive branch.
The copyright of the article is held by Rami G Khouri. It is distributed by Agence Global.
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