“America’s business is not my business but if human beings anywhere are struggling for justice, I must support them even from my cell in Guantánamo Bay,” wrote detainee Asadullah Haroon in a vivid and captivating essay drawing parallels between the pain inflicted upon George Floyd and that inflicted upon him in Guantanamo Bay prison.
“Perhaps my brothers and sisters marching in the streets will turn their eyes on this island prison, and witness our common cause,” he wrote referring to the protests following the killing of Floyd over the summer. Haroon has been at the prison for 13 years without charge.
If the Guantanamo Bay detention facility were a person, it would be a sophomore in college by now. It is a name synonymous with horrific torture and abuse. Americans may be familiar with it, but it simply does not register anymore in our algorithm driven soundbite-style news cycle.
Guantanamo Bay, much like foreign policy as a whole, was not even mentioned in the 2020 presidential debates, and yet the facility remains open, with 40 prisoners— all Muslim — being held indefinitely in horrific and squalid conditions: 23 without charges; 12 either charged with, convicted of, or awaiting proposed trial for war crimes (in shadowy and unchecked military commission systems); and 5 cleared for transfer.
Though President Trump has not “filled up the cells” as he threatened to do, he has forestalled any efforts to close the facility by halting prisoner transfers and shutting down the State Department office that was responsible for negotiating its closure. It is often forgotten that prior to Trump, the urgency to close Guantanamo was bipartisan, recognized by both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (though neither followed through). This commitment nevertheless remains part of the Democratic Party platform and President-elect Joe Biden has promised to close the prison (though without specifying how) after he takes office in January.
On September 11 of this year, a group of civil rights and national security attorneys writing for Just Security published a series of steps that can be undertaken by the executive branch that don’t require congressional approval to execute. They include revoking the Executive Order that mandates Guantanamo detainees’ indefinite detention; installing an internal oversight mechanism in the National Security Council that is not under the directorates of defense, intelligence, or counter-terrorism; transferring all detainees not charged (and those who will not be charged) to third countries through deliberation and negotiation; and pursuing plea agreements for those being prosecuted.
While these concrete steps provide a practical blueprint for the President-elect, concerned citizens hoping to set U.S. foreign policy on a more sensible and humane footing can push the dialogue further by engaging with new frameworks to think more capaciously about what that policy would look like. This would mean undertaking a genealogical interrogation of the very terminologies we take for granted, like “terrorism” and “national security,” and rethinking notions of justice by prioritizing harm reduction through diplomacy and mediation.
As it concerns Guantanamo Bay, the first step in interrogating current concepts and inaugurating new ones is to recognize the interconnectedness of the racial, carceral, and punitive logics that bind domestic and foreign policies in the so-called “War on Terror” as a whole. In response to the murder of George Floyd, public debate has turned its attention to abolitionism as a guide. Perhaps the decades-long work of activist-scholars like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore can offer some guidelines in the realm of international engagement.
As a new book by the Quincy Institute’s Stephen Wertheim demonstrates, it was in the immediate aftermath of World War II that the United States effectively became the “Policeman of the World,” rationalizing its global imperial adventures through human rights discourses marshaled by international institutions like the United Nations whilst simultaneously having the de facto power to override those discourses if they conflicted with U.S. interests. This is what Wertheim describes as “instrumental internationalism.” It provides a useful heuristic not just for understanding America’s post-war foreign policy, but also for making sense of the metastasizing post-9/11 national security apparatus and the subsequent “War on Terror.”
In the post-9/11 case — unlike with the Cold War — the enemy of the “free world” was no longer a state with defined borders and policies, but a racialized, transnational, amorphous caricature that could never be fully defeated but whose specter (despite being neither common nor posing an existential threat) served for the expansion of the national security state and its organs. This war was not merely unleashed internationally, but was intertwined with domestic policies of surveillance and incarceration, and animated by Islamophobia. This allowed the military industrial complex — weapons contractors, belligerent politicians, and jingoistic media punditry — to justify unprecedented and ongoing human rights violations in the purported defense of American freedom.
When seen in this light, Guantanamo Bay appears less as an aberration and more as the logical outcome of an environment that anticipated its arrival. Because the prison is paradigmatic of the problem, an abolitionist approach requires thinking beyond the conceptual vocabulary of the carceral state that brought it into existence. By anchoring Guantanamo within wider structures of state violence, we will better be able to understand what is at stake and move toward a place where something like it could never even exist in the realm of possibility.
Indeed, the strength of Wertheim’s genealogy of U.S. Empire is in illuminating its constituent parts so as to demonstrate its historical contingency. Just as the United States did not have to function as an empire, so too does it not have to expand its empire through the forever “War on Terror.”
Guantanamo’s closure as a brick-and-mortar institution will not suffice to prevent another one from cropping up unless we contend with the underlying logic that made it possible to exist in the first place. This would mean a critical reckoning with the “War on Terror” and the global Islamophobia that fueled it.
The wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world has ample resources to mitigate harm — whether domestic or foreign — in ways that shouldn’t require unrestrained use of violence, which is often not just unethical but also ineffective and expensive. The costs of maintaining the prison — roughly $400 million per year — can be better allocated to infrastructure, education, and social welfare policies that would strengthen democracy at home. As legal scholar Aziz Rana has written, “A non-imperial orientation to the world is essential because it is the water within which domestic social democracy swims.”
By drawing from the wide array of intellectual resources provided by abolitionist scholars and tethering them to critical approaches like those of Wertheim and Rana, with an eye on the role of Islamophobia and the “War on Terror,” our horizon for a conceptual vocabulary to identify our problems and forge solutions broadens exponentially.
We owe this to Asadullah Haroon and to the many others who feel hopeless and forgotten under the violence of American prisons and torture systems.