The United States of Incarceration
This piece originally appeared in anti-war.com.
You’ve got to give it to the Defense Department – they’re assiduous planners. I know: I used to be one. So the latest news that the DOD is preparing its 40 remaining forever prisoners at the extralegal detention center of Guantanamo Bay for nursing home and hospice care, should come as little surprise. It still shocks the senses a bit, though, doesn’t it? The U.S. military, at the behest of the Bush-Cheney axis of secrecy, initially chose to detain post-9/11 “terror” suspects at Gitmo specifically, in order to keep the inmates “beyond the reach of usual US law.” How’s that for human rights and America’s self-proclaimed status as the world’s “beacon of freedom?”
To be honest, I actually appreciate the candor of the Trump administration and its soldiers-turned-prison-guards. It’s almost refreshing (if utterly disturbing). They’re essentially admitting what those us who follow the darkly absurd terror wars have long known – that these final prisoners are never being released. Ever. Nope, DOD is simply planning to keep these folks under lock and key forever. The reason why is more than a little unsettling: most were tortured into confessions that can’t be used in a jury trial, despite the habeas corpus ruling of the court in favor of the Guantanamo inmates. Leave it to the US government to simply refuse to try them or to let them go – consider it penal purgatory without due process.
By the way, almost no one cares. These are “bad guys,” right? Perhaps. Though many scores of earlier detainees were released without charge, so I’m skeptical of America’s record on the issue. Still, a great author – Dostoyevsky – once wrote, presciently, that “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Well, if that’s true than God help the collective American soul.
These forever prisoners will die without a trial – the oldest is 71 years old – because the Justice Department is afraid to charge them (due to the torture), and the US Congress – in a rare bipartisan vote – blocked every one of President Obama’s attempts to transfer them to US supertax prisons. The uni-bomber, the 1993 World Trade Center mastermind, serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, and even Timothy McVeigh (of OKC Federal building bombing fame): all these and more were safely held in these maximum security facilities, but somehow we were led to believe that the Guantanamo detainees would pose an escape threat to society. It was all bunk, and the congressmen knew it. The vote was a political move to protect their own you-know-whats from angry, bigoted constituents. Don’t look for any courage on Capitol Hill, you’ll be searching indefinitely.
Reading about the DOD’s plan for geriatric detention without trial down at GITMO, I was initially angry and disgusted, plus a little embarrassed. Only then I realized something: locking foreigners up and throwing away the key makes perfect sense because, after all, we now live in the United States of Incarceration. That’s right: incarcerating folks – usually our own people – is one of the last things were still #1 at…USA, USA! America leads the world in its incarceration rate – higher than Russia and a few times higher than China. So, we’re in good company.
We also still execute folks here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, even though nearly every Western, industrialized nation quit the barbaric practice long ago. In fact, in 2017, the US was the only country in the Americas to kill an inmate. As of the same year, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries had abolished the death penalty. Still, the US has plenty of compadres among other top state executioners like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq! There’s a group to be proud of!
Getting back to America’s record mass incarceration, let’s remember that we don’t apply the practice equally. Indeed, blacks are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites in America, and black men are imprisoned at ten times the rate of the average Russian. Come on Mr. Putin, live up to your evildoer reputation and catch up!
Now as for locking up foreigners for long stretches, the US doesn’t have such a great track record here either. Let us not forget that Al Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into the Islamic State, was birthed in the American military’s detention facilities during the euphemistically titled Operation Iraqi Freedom. Oh, and the internationally acknowledged abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib – that also proved a boon for Al Qaeda recruiting. The US military: creating the people it is then obliged to kill, since 2001. Consider it an apt slogan for future recruiting.
Look, I’m prepared for the retorts: the folks still at Guantanamo – regardless of their advanced ages – are the “worst of the worst,” and can never be released. If so, I say, follow the law and try and convict them in a federal court of law. Wars are supposed to end, prisoners of war are supposed to be released at some point. Read the Geneva Conventions – that’s how it works.
Even Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombers – many with British blood on their hands – were released after the Good Friday Accords were signed (some even before). Even the Nazi prisoners of World War II – many of whom were served in southern restaurants in which their black American guards were disallowed – were released in the years immediately following the surrender. The Russians took a bit longer, and also worked many Nazi soldiers to death, but even they, after some ten years, released the survivors. The US tops the list here too: keeping some of the Guantanamo detainees for seventeen plus years now!
None of this is a question of whether you, or I, “like” the accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. It’s about two far more profound ideas: sober strategy, and the national soul. We already know, categorically, that prison abuse (Abu Ghraib) and the very existence of Gitmo bolsters Islamist extremist recruiting throughout the world. You see there’s a reason AQ and ISIS tend to dress up Western detainees in orange jumpsuits prior to their gruesome beheadings – its meant as a symbol of the uniforms donned by Guantanamo prisoners!
Mainly, though – and call me an idealist – but how we treat the “worst” of our prisoners reflects the spirit (or lack there of) of our very laws. Is this – perpetually locking up detainees without trial – who we really want to be? Certainly no, as far as I’m concerned – and I’ve fought the Taliban and AQI to bloody stalemates on the battlefield.
But, given the apathy of most citizens and how quickly this story will likely be erased from the news, I’d say the evidence demonstrates that yes, apparently, this is who Americans want to be…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
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