By Gabielle Simeck ’18
On January 20, 2015, President Obama addressed the American people in his annual State of the Union address. Obama appealed to the nation for a return to our convictions of justice, fairness, and freedom. Throughout the speech, President Obama called on Congress as well as each American citizen to reconsider the past 15 years and to contemplate the United States’ proper role in international politics. The many political issues raised during the speech — equal pay, free college tuition, closing Guantánamo Bay— all revolved around a main theme of the address: redefining who the American people are and what we as a country and society want to become. President Obama used the occasion to demonstrate his unrelenting support for closing Guantanámo Bay: “As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice – so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit,” he said. “It’s not who we are.” As the 13th anniversary of Guantánamo Bay approaches, the time has come to shut down the prison and put an end to an era of human rights violations.
The infamous prison opened its doors in January 2002 and has held hundreds of suspected terrorists in the following years without making formal accusations. One prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, wrote a book during his time in prison. Entitled Guantánamo Diary, the book provides a deeply shocking and horrific testament to the sacrifices the United States government made in the name of the War on Terror. In the years prior to 9/11, Slahi had been questioned about possible involvement in several terrorist plots and with Al Qaeda. Until 9/11, Slahi was always released. On Nov. 20, 2001, Slahi was detained by American authorities and has been in American custody ever since. In those thirteen years, Slahi has never been formally charged, and the American government has never been able to find any evidence to connect him with a terrorist plot. Furthermore, a United States District Court judge ordered Slahi’s release on the grounds that no evidence exists that would indicate that Slahi was an active participant in Al Qaeda terrorist plots. For Slahi, and with many others held at Gitmo, guilt by association continues to prevent the release of innocent men. The use of torture at the Guantánamo facility further complicates the situation. Prisoners would often lie in order to end their painful “enhanced interrogations.” As Mark Danner wrote in the New York Times Book Review of Mr. Slahi’s book, “in this way the vast and brutal American interrogation mechanism, stretching around the globe in an archipelago of black sites housing hundreds of detainees at the mercy of untold numbers of interrogators, transformed itself into an intricate machine for generating self-reinforcing fiction.”
For several years, it appeared as though Guantánamo Bay would finally be closed. Though progress was slow, the prison’s population gradually decreased from a high of 680 in 2003 to an all-time low of 122 in 2015. However, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, a group of Republicans including Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina joined together to call on the Obama Administration to end the release of detainees. The three Republicans are co-sponsors of a new bill, which would prohibit the release of prisoners who were cleared for release by an extensive screening process and who were never formally charged. In a speech given on January 13, Sen. Ayotte declared, “we need a time out.” The argument that the United States government needs a “time out” to reconsider releasing prisoners is woefully late. That national “time out” was required in the months after 9/11 when fear drove American government officials to sacrifice commitments to justice in order to pursue a radical definition of national security. Until Guantanamo Bay is finally shut-down, it will continue to constitute a significant national security risk, pose an enormous financial burden, and, most significantly, symbolize the U.S. government’s evasion of justice.
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