• Isabella Liu

Western Fear and American Values: The Persistence of Guantanamo Bay

Since its post-9/11 conception, Guantanamo Bay has represented all the best and worst things about America. Its existence has always been controversial. Originally created as a detention camp for terrorists and individuals whom the United States government determined a threat to international security, Guantanamo Bay has become infamous for the systems it uses to detain such ‘threats’. Exposed for human rights abuses and for detaining prisoners indefinitely without trial, Guantanamo’s existence has been condemned by Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights for grave breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The US government is undoubtedly aware of these violations. So what is stopping Guantanamo Bay and its methods from being abandoned as a US-mandated detention camp?

Guantanamo Bay’s existence is deeply entangled in Western fear. President George W. Bush created the detention facility with the intention of crushing terrorism, but the methods by which he did this were crude, even illegal. Sleep deprivation, starvation, and waterboarding were used on Guantanamo’s prisoners. Although hundreds of prisoners have been repatriated, the ACLU reported that “39 men remain indefinitely detained there, and 27 of them have never even been charged with any crime” and that “14 of those 27 have been cleared for transfer or release, some for years.” All American Presidents until Donald Trump’s term made substantial efforts to close the camp, but to no avail, despite the fact that most prisoners no longer pose any threat to international security. This dramatically harmed the US’ international reputation as a country dictated by rule of law. To many, Guantanamo Bay represents irrational xenophobia, as opposed to a coherent plan with a detailed goal in mind. And xenophobia, at least for the US government, is synonymous with the fear of an Islamic threat, the result of an American ‘othering’ and consequent villainizing of Muslims following the violence and terror of 9/11.

On February 4th, 2022, the repatriation of a Saudi Arabian Al-Qaeda operative to his home country for mental health treatment was announced after being held at Guantanamo for over 20 years. The Periodic Review Board stated that the “detention of Mohammad Mani Ahmad al-Qahtani was no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the national security of the United States.” The move represented a drastic change in the American attitude that all Islamic and jihad sympathizers should be imprisoned and punished. It illustrated US leadership’s intention to move towards a world where humane treatment of all, including Muslims, is the norm. Yet the damage has already been done. The ACLU noted that most “teenagers and many young adults alive today have never known a United States without the stain of Guantánamo,” having observed, “three presidents pledge to close the prison without following through on that promise.” Embedded in American culture is the existence of a place where torture, suffering, and punishment is not only allowed, but condoned. Guantanamo holds a position in US governmental values. Is this why most Presidents have failed to shut it down?

Guantanamo Bay symbolizes criminal justice and American superiority to many, but it does this alongside its origins in racism, religious discrimination, and a profound lack of humanity and empathy; in short, the dramatic ‘othering’ of a religious group. It cannot be denied that Guantanamo has allowed the US an upper hand over rising threats of terrorism following 9/11 and the rise of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. But ultimately, the US will have to change how it views outsiders in order to close the camp. Guantanamo may have saved the US in the early 2000s, but at what cost? Will the government ever be able to face itself and restore a humane and just culture? President Biden has pledged to close Guantanamo Bay. Only time will tell.