Guantanamo Bay muddles the American narrative on wartime conduct. Torture and unjust detention are nothing new, but arbitrary, indefinite detention is.
On a Sunday in March, the University of Washington's Jamie Mayerfeld spoke to congregants from the University Temple United Methodist Church about the case of Adnan Latif, a Guantanamo Bay inmate since 2002. Latif's detention is one of the more bracing instances of knucklehead injustice, a Guantanamo prison saga that would have roused Kafka or Dario Fo.
The latest WikiLeaks revelations from The New York Times and other papers underline the problems and confusion that have marked the overall Guantanamo operations, including the particular problems for Yemenis like Latif with weak or no ties to terrorism. The newly published documents seem to confirm much of what critics have been saying about the lack of remedies where individuals appear to be wrongly or unnecessarily held.
Latif's existential detour began in 2001 when the Yemeni national was snatched by Pakistani security and handed over to American forces for a $5,000 bounty. Mayerfeld, an associate professor of political science who writes extensively on human rights, observed that only 5 percent of Guantanamo prisoners were captured by the U.S. The rest were nabbed by others in a spirit of post-9/11 bonhomie. Bonhomie and, well, the hook of liberal bounties, sweeteners to lasso America's real or perceived enemies.
Latif became a victim of wrong-place, wrong-time circumstance. He had suffered severe brain damage in a 1994 car accident, a condition that magnified his despair and greased subsequent suicide attempts. And his prison timeline hasn't helped on the despair front. With no documented link to terrorism or a terrorist network, Latif was recommended for release in 2004. It didn't happen. His release was cleared in 2007. No action was taken.
In 2009, the Obama administration initially consented to a transfer back to his native Yemen. Finally in 2010, federal District Judge Henry Kennedy, Jr. heard Latif's habeas corpus petition and ordered his immediate release. The Obama administration needed to take "all necessary and appropriate diplomatic steps to facilitate Latif's release," Judge Kennedy wrote. This time, however, the Obama administration decided to appeal.
Latif's nationality presaged the administration's reversal. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber and a citizen of Nigeria, was trained and equipped in Yemen. After Abdulmutallab's unsuccessful attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines Airbus A330 over Detroit in December of 2009, the administration adopted a blanket ban on releasing Yemeni detainees. Largely as a result, Yemenis form the the largest group of current Guantanamo prisoners. It's Camus meets the accident of birth.
Mayerfeld offered a primer: Guantanamo Bay held 779 prisoners in January of 2002. Today that number is just 172 (seven have died while incarcerated). All the while and as early as 2002, one CIA report declared that one-third to one-half of detainees had no ties to terrorism. Nevertheless, a utilitarian calculus infected executive-branch decision making. There are evil actors at Guantanamo. Better to delay justice for a few, the conventional wisdom goes, than imperil American security over the long term.
Most of Guantanamo's overarching questions transcend partisanship. Separating the innocent from the merely suspect has been delegated to a body called the "Guantanamo Review Task Force." Mayerfeld terms it "trial by bureaucracy."
Improvements have taken place, Mayerfeld said, and the consensus is that by the summer of 2009 detainee treatment drew closer to international norms. There are still flagrant violations of normative justice, however, such as arbitrary detention, deprivation of due process, and the denial of a fair trial. The question of solitary confinement also looms large. "Imagine living and sleeping in your own bathroom for 23 hours a day," Mayerfeld said.
Mayerfeld, whose scholarship revolves around issues of torture and human rights, teaches a UW class on Guantanamo. In addition to extensive research, students are required to keep journals documenting the quotidian and often soul-deadening anomie of specific detainees. Individual profiles range from an Adnan Latif to unabashed killers such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
In a recent Crosscut interview, Dr. Esther Brimmer, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, said, "The president has said that he plans to close Guantanamo, and cases are under active, regular review. We've moved out 68 prisoners to third countries." Brimmer, who said that she was not familiar with details of Latif's case, insisted that Guantanamo's future also depends on the consent of Congress.
For Mayerfeld the essential question centers on Guantanamo's afterlife. The conundrum of arbitrary, indefinite detention will not disappear if the United States shutters Guantanamo tomorrow and simply scatters prisoners to mainland purgatory.
Here the proverbial lessons of history don't apply. "The fallacy of prediction by analogy occurs when analogy is used to anticipate future events — as it often is, in the absence of anything better," David Hackett Fischer wrote more than 40 years ago. It's an axiom that resonates still.
Guantanamo Bay is not about American servicemen in 1898 learning a novel technique for torturing Filipino POWs called the "water cure;" it is not Camp Harmony, the Puyallup way station for Japanese-Americans in the 1940s; and it is not President Lincoln's Civil War suspension of habeaus corpus.
If Guantanamo is without clear antecedents, then the model for combatting it seems equally elusive. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s isn't instructive because so much revolved around a judicial strategy in addition to political mobilization. Thurgood Marshall was the linchpin and Martin Luther King, Jr., was the closer. Justice would be revealed in the courts.
Capital punishment may be the closest analogue: a manifestly moral issue that loses juice because the lead characters are often heinous or unsympathetic. Latif — an ill and troubled man, but not a terrorist — has become an accidental metaphor, a force greater than himself.
So on a cold spring morning, two dozen Methodists ask questions and grab letter paper to write their members of Congress about a 34-year-old prisoner.
"What has been done will be done again," reads Ecclesiastes. "There is nothing new under the sun." Well, mostly.
No one aims to amend scripture in the basement of a Methodist church. It's tempting though.