THE BLOG
12/09/2014 01:42 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

In Small Places

Miami Herald via Getty Images

In the oft quoted Eleanor Roosevelt enquiry: "where, after all, do human rights begin?" to which she answered, "in small places, close to home, so close and so small that they can't be seen on any maps of the world, yet they are the world of the individual person", Roosevelt alluded to the notion of the inherent, inalienable nature of human rights.

Modern proximity to an acceptance of this notion is faced by a critical threat, as the national debate on Guantánamo crystallizes into a grey area, despite recent transfers from the facility and the present release of the Senate CIA Torture Report. Mere erasure of Guantánamo from the world's map via a symbolic closure of the facility will likewise create intolerable risks of equivocation, so long as promotion of the values of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence remain absent from the mainstream narrative.

Camp Delta, Camp X-Ray and Camp America occupy a remote corner of Cuba, resting at Guantánamo Bay, firmly a part of the American present. Yet, the legacy of the natural and juridical wonder that sits "athwart the social and political fault lines of the modern world", as once described by Harvard historian Jonathan Hansen, is fast becoming a myth, full of self-serving valorizations. To be sure, it is a myth that will likely never be exposed to adequate historical scrutiny.

The Obama administration's parsing on the morality and efficacy of America's actions with respect to Guantánamo is somewhat hard to accept. Yet, by continuing to allow the morality and efficacy of the U.S.'s actions vis-à-vis Guantánamo to remain openly questionable, Obama leaves behind for future presidents -- as well as leaders in foreign nations -- the authority to abuse the rights of individuals who are held in foreign territory, or to utilize proxies to do so.

At 333 Constitution Ave NW, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, I sat in Room 26A in October as the needless movement of compliant prisoners to force-feeding by the "Forcible Cell Extraction Team", a squad of soldiers in riot gear, and the use of a painful multi-point restraint chair were brought to the attention of individual Americans.

Yet, Abu Wa'el Dhiab's contest to the legality of the current force-feeding practices employed at Guantánamo could do little to address the past and future controversies of one of modern America's deepest affronts to individual rights: the conception, epoch and evolving legacy of the detention camp.

As a democratic society, together a country became acquainted with the endurance of Guantánamo, having collectively observed a steady erosion of civil liberties heralded by a global "war on terror" that today shows little sign of recovery nor relief. All of this happened, as American society (like the rest of the globe) did, and still continues to, live much of its life online with immediate access to information, speculation and debate at the click of a mouse, or the trace of a fingertip.

Alongside a lack of scrutiny attached to the issue of force-feeding (the new battle for this circulating the administration's appeal of a federal court order issued in October requiring the release of 28 force-feeding tapes), the normalization of a nation's failure to confront a way forward, to address a multitude of conceptual and operational questions regarding how it can best support solutions, is just one facet of the impending legacy of the Bay. Meanwhile, every day the camp remains open, human rights abuses occur, these actions being taken under the Obama administration and in the name of ordinary citizens.

Behind the shadows of the tall buzzwords of "torture", "Abu Ghraib", "unnecessary wars", "detention without trial", "force-feeding", "solitary confinement" and "unchecked imperialist instincts", according to a Senior Lecturer on Social Studies and History at Harvard University, 70 percent of American people continue to support the prison.

As noted by Deborah Labelle, an allegiance to an "inalienable" entitlement to the same basic rights, irrespective of and indifferent to geography, status, class, birth, gender, race, age or sexual orientation is not firmly embossed in the modern public consciousness, nor in recent interpretations of the American Constitution. Yet these rights have always been enshrined under, the admittedly embryonic state of, international law; in international human rights documents they are labeled as basic, predicated on the unalterable status of being human. Herein we confront both the abnormality and the routineness of America's current predicament.

As noted by Jonathan Hansen, in 1741 Americans were looking to Guantánamo Bay as the "promised land", on its "windward passage into the Caribbean", yet the role of the Bay has been reinvented numerous times in its history. Undoubtedly the time is now to craft Guantánamo's legacy anew.

Over the past five years, the President has actively hindered the closure of the world's most notorious prison, electing to betray the promises of his presidential candidacy in order to advance a much broader counter-terrorism policy, constituted by a wide-scale increase in the use of drones and an expansion of his surveillance powers.

Guantánamo's current legacy fuels the citing today of the U.S.'s detention tactics by fragile democracies such as Pakistan as legitimate policy, in addition to providing Al-Qaeda with a fresh recruiting tool. Domestically, it inflicts a deep scar across the notion of inherent, inalienable, individual rights.

The lights remain burning. The polemics of Guantánamo continue to embody the prickly issues of America's commitment to a war of indefinite duration against an ill-defined enemy on a worldwide battlefield. In this, the mainstream reporting is well versed. The country is apprised of the fact that recent years have betrayed the values of due process and just war in the West. Yet when will the corresponding acknowledgment come, that: "we got scared, we did not know what we were doing. We did a bad thing"?

The Obama administration has left the world insecure about the U.S. stance on individual rights and freedoms, not least by forsaking adherence to a universal ban against torture (by failing to condemn unequivocally the U.S.'s geopolitical strategy with respect to torture; declining to hold accountable Bush-era perpetrators of torture; and attempting to create latitude regarding how it may apply its treaty obligations outside U.S. borders).

As a result, should Guantánamo close prior to the end of Obama's second term; it will prove merely a symbolic gesture. Obama's policy has served the President's interests; one can only hope that history will accord him this agency. Yet where will individual rights stand if individuals remain complicit in the policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial that will remain?

As it is currently drafted, the legacy of Gitmo sets a woefully destructive precedent for individual rights, for future conflicts and for foreign and domestic affairs alike. American society must do all that is possible to alter this legacy, and to make it one of apology and action.

In small places, in fragile politics, amidst comprehensive failures, individuals must find a solution. The recent transfers from Gitmo and today's disclosure of the Senate CIA Torture Report offer society an entry point into a transformative process, for example by constructing an appropriate discourse surrounding these releases. In so doing individuals may play a crucial role in closing a dark chapter in American history.

In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1963 Letter From a Birmingham Jail: "we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people." From one prison cell to another, detainee Abdelhadi Faraj speaks directly to these tensions of complicity in his 'A Letter From Guantánamo', posted to a liberated society in May 2013: "This is my call to the outside world from behind these rusty bars, in this monstrous cell. Does the world know what is happening in this prison?"