Imagine that the face you present to the world is one you think is totally unblemished, a picture-perfect presentation unnaturally enhanced by propaganda as though someone was applying an Instagram filter. That face is called American democracy and guardianship of human rights.
That face has had a giant boil seeping pus on its forehead for the past twenty years, and that boil is called Guantanamo Bay.
The infamous prison camp has been a hell away from home for hundreds of Muslims (most of whom were never charged) since former US President George W Bush launched the War on Terror and upended the international order in the aftermath of 9/11.
Today, twenty years after it opened, 39 men remained indefinitely detained at Guantanamo Bay, 27 of which have never been charged with a crime.
Despite countless promises to close the prison down by numerous presidential administrations, it remains open, a testament to American hypocrisy. The defining legacy of Guantanamo Bay will always be how it uncovered the rot of injustice hidden beneath the gleaming rhetoric that surrounds the world’s most powerful democracy.
A compounding injustice
While for most of us the past two decades feel like they went by almost too quickly, that is certainly not the case for the dozens still languishing in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility – one of the most glaring blights on the international legal system overall, and on the human rights record of the United States in particular.
Hundreds of innocent souls have passed through Gitmo, as the prison is colloquially known, and of the 780 Muslim men who have been held there, 9 have died while in American custody, most by apparent suicide.
Even if we do assume that US military coroners are being truthful about the cause of death, it is easy to see why men might be pushed to take their own life after experiencing the trauma of Guantanamo Bay and other American torture sites.
Naturally, in American rhetoric, the US never “tortures”. No, it instead engages in “enhanced interrogation”, a sanitised word for what everyone else calls torture. Harrowing accounts from prisoners detail how they were hung naked from ceilings, held under water to the point of almost drowning, sexually assaulted, starved, and beaten.
This is, of course, nothing to say of the well-known technique of waterboarding, where prisoners are strapped down with a towel over their faces as interrogators pour gallons of water onto them to simulate drowning. The technique is so savage that it is claimed even CIA officers wept as they witnessed detainees undergo the punishment.
However, their tears meant very little in light of the fact that many of them aided, abetted, and stayed silent while human beings were subjected to horrific methods of torture that were then replicated in other American prison camps, most infamously in Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
Making a mockery of democracy
Gitmo became so heinous as an example of American brutality that a more youthful Barack Obama made it part of his campaign promise to close the torture camp down if he were to be elected.
We all know how that turned out. Obama was elected in 2008 and presided over one of the most rapid declines of global US influence while ordering a tenfold increase to his predecessor Bush’s drone programme that killed so many Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian women and children. By the time he departed the White House in 2016, Guantanamo Bay stood open and continued to fester.
Of course, considering how odious the man could be, no one had any expectations that former President Donald Trump would do anything about the camp – in fact, it is a wonder he did not do his best to keep it open. Trump was instead content to sit and ignore it, spending four years creating chaos all over the world (even if he did manage to do what Obama did not by striking back at Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad for gassing civilians again).
However, the hopeful (some might say naïve) again wished for an American change of tack once President Joe Biden took office. Considering Biden was Obama’s running mate and his vice president for eight years, he has often been seen as version 2.0 of the Obama administration. In Guantanamo Bay’s case, this has thus far proven entirely.
One year into Biden’s administration and twenty years after it was first opened, Gitmo is still open and still a prison camp housing those who have been held under military detention and not transferred to any competent civil judicial authorities for decades. Biden has also given no indication that he is ready to close this ugly chapter in America’s history and move on, making a mockery of American democracy and its claims to upholding human rights.
This hypocrisy has been front and centre whenever there is any discussion to be had regarding the US’ record on human rights and the value of the rule of law. Rather than upholding these values in one of its darkest times after 11 September, the ruling political class succumbed to the temptation to behave barbarously in order to confront those it deemed to be a threat.
But rather than legitimately targeting only those responsible for the crime, the United States instead pursued a militant campaign of vengeance that put Afghanistan through 20 years of a war that ended with the Taliban’s resurgence, and utterly destroyed Iraq in a blow the country has never recovered from.
It also scooped up anyone it deemed to be suspicious, including innocents such as Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the subject of the 2021 legal drama The Mauritanian, who was held for 14 years in Gitmo without charge.
This tells us a lot about America’s soul, and how it can never again square the circle of a commitment to human rights and international law so long as it refuses to exorcise itself of the blight of Guantanamo Bay and other trappings of the War on Terror. If there was ever a time to do so, that time is now.
Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues.
Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.