In its tenth year of operations, Guantánamo continues to recede in the news, as though ignoring it will make it go away, rather than continuing to skew America’s moral compass from wherever it is that horrors go when they are hidden. However, while Guantánamo is still a largely unacknowledged crime scene, its existence — and its 172 remaining hostages — will not actually disappear by being ignored.
As President Obama deals another blow to hopes that he will close the prison, as he promised, this time refusing to try the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators in a federal court, as his Attorney General wanted — and announced 16 months ago — and as he himself claimed to want, until voices were raised in dissent, and he retreated, as he has so often on Guantánamo and on the legacy of torture he inherited, it is time for those who care strongly about this scandal to speak out more forcefully than ever.
With Obama’s failure, it is time for those who are concerned by his perilous role as the man who failed to turn back the clock to before 9/11, when the rule of law meant something, and Dick Cheney had not yet begun to drag America down to the “dark side,” to find new ways to address this disaster. Otherwise, sadly, those who have embraced the “dark side” — and whose corrosive influence pollutes the very heart of American society — wil have won.
As one example of how this can be done — and the kind of passion that can be harnessed, and the kind of language that can be used — I’m cross-posting below a letter that has just been delivered to the Justice Department by the campaigning group Witness Against Torture, who take the torture and illegal imprisonment of the men at Guantánamo very personally, holding a 10-day fast and vigil outside the White House every January, to mark the anniversary of the prison’s opening, and regularly seeking arrest in pursuit of their aims.
Last June, members of Witness Against Torture, plus representatives of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Defending Dissent and the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International met with Portia Roberson, the head of the Office of Public Liaison at the Justice Department, to discuss their grievances, and expressed satisfaction that she “conveyed repeatedly that she appreciates our disappointment and anger even, and was very intent on learning more about our point of view. She was particularly impressed that we are not, for the most part, professional human rights advocates but instead ‘everyday people.’ Her message was that she’d love to advocate, internal to DoJ, on our behalf.”
Nine months on, and the doors at the DoJ are firmly shut. In January, when I joined Witness Against Torture, the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups for a protest outside The White House on the 9th anniversary of Guantánamo’s opening, and then followed WAT activists to the DoJ, where I made a brief speech, I was taken aback by the palpable sense of hostility emanating from the massed ranks of police “guarding” the building.
In light of this shutdown of all communication, I commend Witness Against Torture for putting together the letter cross-posted below, and hope it provides readers with some inspiration. (For further information, I have added links to the original letter).
A letter from Witness Against Torture to the Justice Department, April 7, 2011
Ms. Portia Roberson
Director of the Office of Public Liaison
United States Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001
April 7, 2011
Dear Director Roberson,
This is Witness Against Torture. You are aware of who we are and what we believe, as well as our longstanding desire — repeatedly conveyed to your office over the past 7 months — to meet with DoJ officials to discuss Guantánamo, torture, and issues of accountability.
For ten days In January, we were outside the DoJ office, ready to meet; we informed you and other DoJ employees of our presence. While declining in January to meet with us (with the explanation that “it is not possible at this time”), you nonetheless concluded your email saying: “It is my hope that going forward you might continue to utilize this office and my staff to express your concerns.” Indeed, we would like to take you at your word and have an opportunity to address our concerns, in person, to DoJ staff in positions of real power in the Department. Our request, in short, remains unchanged. We will be again in Washington the week of June 20 and would appreciate working with your office to arrange such a meeting (June 23 would be ideal).
We should say that we have by now scarcely any hope that our request will be granted. We — and the cause we have tried to honorably represent — have been treated with discourtesy, disrespect, and even contempt by an institution (the DoJ) and an administration from which we expected far better. Avoiding our phone calls; not answering letters and emails; whatever efforts DoJ and White House staff, Homeland Security, the DC police, and whoever else made to manage the “crisis” of 40 people in jumpsuits holding vigil at your entrance in the January snow — it all seems to us the pathetic dealings of a bureaucracy too afraid to face up to the truth of its decisions and answer to citizens who seek, and deserve, answers. We have taken word of the futility of our efforts to engage our government back to our communities; uniformly, our stories summon the lament that American democracy is in far sorrier shape than our listeners had feared.
When the Office of Public Liaison functions as a firewall to prevent real dialogue with the public, there is a problem. The conduct of your office seems, however, but a small part of a much bigger, disturbing picture. The President has by now decisively gone back on his promises with respect to Guantánamo and detention policy, mocked the spirit and letter of nearly every good intention he once professed. The prison camp remains open and will remain so, perhaps forever. The Military Commissions, once suspended, will resume, providing means to convict men — themselves often the victims of torture by the US — by a diluted standard of due process. Innocent men — victorious in their habeas cases or cleared for release by the US government — remain imprisoned, rendering the habeas right all but meaningless and the process of administrative review a sham. A system of indefinite detention without charge or trial has been authorized by Executive Order.
The Justice Department echoes this disgraceful record. It has thrown roadblock after roadblock in front of the efforts of innocent men to win their release. It has cowered to baseless fears in essentially abandoning the civilian justice system for terror suspects. It has fought tooth and nail, in case after case, to ensure that no US official need suffer any consequence for having committed or authorized torture. And it has worked to prevent any victim of US torture from securing justice in any court, anywhere.
President Obama pledged to restore the rule of law. The Justice Department is duty bound to enforce the law — whether domestic laws against torture or international agreements mandating the prosecution of alleged torturers. But the rule of law remains broken, divisible, travestied by reason of cowardice and cruelty. We have tried to get our heads around this tragic fact: the United States can kidnap and torture people, steal years of their lives, destroy their families, injure their communities, and the victims of this abuse have resolutely no legal recourse, no promise of a day in proper court. We reject this terrible reality, and must denounce any institution that enables it to persist. For the last two years, issues of right and wrong and the rule of law have been smothered by the pestilent vapors of political calculation, whose sole determination is what the administration can reasonably get away with without paying too high a price among its “base.” We likewise reject this cynicism and say “shame” to anyone who perpetuates it.
Reading this, you may be inclined to respond that “you’re sorry we feel this way.” Our response is that how we feel is ultimately irrelevant: what concerns us, and should concern you, are the circumstances we describe. President Obama and his Justice Department had both the opportunity and obligation to dismantle the pseudo-legal apparatus designed by the Bush administration that authorized, “legalized,” and immunized American crimes. With this came the obligation to reckon with the nation’s wrongs and provide justice and restitution to the victims. The administration blew this chance, so resolutely that reasonable people like ourselves may wonder if there was ever any real conviction behind the promise of true change. Regardless, the result has been a moral disaster — profound damage to American ideals and institutions that we fear may become permanent.
By now we sense the near-total futility of appealing to principle or our expectation of how a government agency should respond to the honest concern of the public. So we appeal here to your very personal sense of honor, as well as that of others in your institution, in imploring you to grant us the opportunity to discuss these grave matters with those who need to hear from us.
If you are inclined to pay us small favor, please circulate this note — as well as our past correspondence, if you wish — to anybody at the Justice Department apt to listen.
Witness Against Torture
Michael S. Foley