Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Sometimes, when you watch the strange, repetitive political dance that swirls around the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- the president announcing yet again that he plans to "close" it and the Republicans in Congress swearing that they won't let him -- it's hard not to wonder what alternative universe we live in. The initial round of this began on the day Barack Obama entered the Oval Office and circulated an executive order meant to close that prison within a year. The latest presidential "closing" announcement came just over two weeks ago. In a major speech at National Defense University, Obama also claimed that he would soon lift restrictions he had imposed in 2009 on sending Guantanamo prisoners long cleared of any criminal activities back to Yemen.
Just last week, Congressional Republicans offered the usual reply. They proposed to keep the prison open, whatever the president wanted, "by barring the administration from transferring its terror suspects to the United States or a foreign country such as Yemen."
By now everyone knows that Guantanamo can't be closed, not by this administration or any other one imaginable. At present, it is the scene of an extraordinary protest movement, now almost three months old, by 103 prisoners using potential death by starvation to bring attention to the nightmare that has been their lives behind bars in Cuba.
More than 11 years after its founding, Guantanamo looks to Americans ever more like an offshore aberration, the last of the walking dead that just won't go down. As it happens, though, that institution is anything but an aberration. It's exactly what it was meant to be. The Bush administration situated it just off the coast of Florida in the first place because it wanted to avoid legality, justice, and the reach of U.S. courts.
It's true that George W. Bush's top officials made a fetish out of giving illegality -- including global kidnapping operations, torture interrogations, and a global string of "black sites" -- a feel-good veneer of legalism. That was why, for instance, the Department of Justice produced those infamous "torture memos" that, among other remarkable things, managed to put the legal definition of torture in the hands and mind of the torturer. But the goal of the president, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other key officials -- some of whom reportedly had torture techniques demonstrated for them in the White House -- had everything to do with leaving legality behind.
In 2001, they were eager above all to "take the gloves off." They wanted to be able to do anything they cared to do on their self-proclaimed "global battlefield." They wanted to lay hands -- not theirs, admittedly, but delegated ones -- as violently as possible on the prisoners swept up there: the worst of the worst, minor footsoldiers of al Qaeda or the Taliban, people who simply had enemies who betrayed them, and the innocent who wandered into or were trapped in this hell. It didn't matter. They weren't into making distinctions or charging prisoners with crimes or anything so banal. What they wanted was control, total control, over the bodies of their enemies. It wasn't a nice thing. It wasn't a pretty thing. It wasn't the sort of thing you said in polite company or (most of the time) in the media, which, in one of the small linguistic scandals of the era took to replacing the simple, easy to define word "torture" with the administration's euphemistic phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques."
They wanted to revel in their power and their glory in the Greater Middle East, but also in the dark corners of those black sites and in that jewel-in-the-crown of offshore injustice, Guantanamo. They were proud of their Cuban prison. They meant it to be a way of life and now, of course, no one can get rid of it. It's not possible. The Obama method of "closing" it means transferring to a supermax prison on U.S. soil up to 50 prisoners that top American officials believe to be guilty of something, but can't bring to trial, largely because "confessions" were taken from them by the dirtiest possible methods that won't hold up in any court of law. Even this, however, wouldn't close Guantanamo. It would simply embed its methodology in the heart of the U.S. prison and judicial system (which is why such a plan has sarcastically been dubbed "Gitmo North").
In fact, in certain ways, like so many ugly things that wars bring home, aspects of what might be called the Guantanamo Syndrome have already crept deep into our American world, whether Congress approves or not. As Victoria Brittain, author of Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror, makes clear in a new piece, "Guilty Until Proven Innocent," pre-punishment and pre-conviction, Guantanamo-style, are increasingly everyday by-products of the war on terror at home.