“Courage Muslim Brothers/You do not walk alone/We will walk with you/And sing your spirit home,” sang demonstrators inside a National Museum of American History atrium during a January 11, 2014, protest calling for closure of Guantanamo Bay’s terrorist detention facility. The demonstration displayed an inverted morality naively proclaiming terrorist detainees innocent while condemning American national defense measures at Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO).
The demonstrators, many of them emulating “Gitmo” detainees with orange jumpsuits and black hoods, began their protest on Pennsylvania Avenue before the White House. Condemnation for JTF-GTMO was omnipresent from protesters like Michael Wollack, who described Gitmo as “harsh…unreal…torturous.” His companion Cayman Macdonald, a Code Pink intern, dismissed JTF-GTMO’s motto “Safe—Humane—Legal—Transparent.” One demonstrator wore a t-shirt from the anti-Gitmo group Witness Against Torture (WAT) condemning an “American Gulag.” Led by “Courage Muslim Brothers” author and “Peace Poet” Luke Nephew, the protesters chanted phrases such as “we believe in freedom” and “stop torture now” inside the museum after having marched there from the White House.
Before the demonstrators assembled on Pennsylvania Avenue, Frida Berrigan, daughter of peace activists Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, described the January 11, 2002, arrival of the first detainees at Gitmo as a “day of national shame.” Now an organizer with WAT, Berrigan talked of “how low our country sank” into “violence” and “racism” while proclaiming the rally’s motto of “make Guantanamo history.” Addressing the protestor “heroes,” Nihad Awad, the Hamas-supporting executive director of the Hamas-derivative Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said that future generations will speak of “Gitmogate.” Reverend Ron Stief, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s (NRCAT) executive director, called upon his audience to “pray to God” for Gitmo’s closure.
By contrast, Gitmo’s inmates seemed to elicit no concern from the demonstration. Hunger strikes, a recurring protest form by Gitmo detainees, inspired Berrigan as “heroic.” The demonstrators, meanwhile, consistently condemned JTF-GTMO forced feeding of hunger strikers as illegal torture.
British Gitmo chronicler Andy Worthington demanded that the American government “stop lying to us” about supposedly innocent JTF-GTMO detainees. Demonstration speakers such as Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin gave particular attention to the “terrible tragedy” of the Saudi Arabian Shaker Aamer. Gitmo’s last British resident detainee, Aamer entered JTF-GTMO on February 14, 2002, his youngest son’s birthday. Reading a letter from Aamer, Benjamin described Aamer’s “reservoir of love.” Stief similarly desired for Gitmo detainees to “feel our love for them.”
Individual demonstration participants elaborated their concerns in brief interviews. Having “some due process” for Gitmo detainees was a dominant demonstration theme for protestors like Wollack, while Macdonald demanded “some kind of trial” for detainees charged with crimes, although JTF-GTMO military commissions were “not my ideal.” Questioned indoors after the demonstrators had marched to the National Museum of American History, Benjamin flatly advocated that the United States give terrorists charged with crimes a trial like “every other criminal.” This is simply “what a civilized society does.”
Briefly answering questions previously in front of the museum, Awad similarly condemned Gitmo as “inhumane” and “un-American.” Seeing “no alternative” to JTF-GTMO closure, the subject of a “broken…promise” by President Barack Obama, Awad blamed “pure politics” for the camp’s continued existence. Gitmo detainees from groups like Al Qaeda should receive “due process” either in civilian trials, possibly in the United States, or regular prisoner of war treatment under the Geneva Convention. Yet when pressed, Awad accepted the possibility that the Gitmo facilities could continue to exist as a traditional prisoner of war camp.
Delays in releasing Gitmo inmates were also another point of contention. Wollack felt release of detainees no longer judged a security threat was simply an American responsibility, irrespective of hurdles presented by countries refusing to receive Gitmo alumni. American officials should be able to find “like a hundred options” for placing released JTF-GTMO detainees. Macdonald, meanwhile, speculated that release delays stemmed from concerns of what freed detainees might reveal about their past treatment.
Research, though, belies the demonstration’s claims that many Gitmo detainees are simply innocent individuals falsely accused as combatants due to factors such as bounties. JTF-GTMO documents compiled by the New York Times online, for example, copiously document Aamer as a “member of al-Qaida” and “close associate of Usama Bin Laden (UBL)” who is a “HIGH risk” to American interests. Likewise Abdel Al Mudafari, represented by Wollack with a placard and described by him as a “self-proclaimed teacher of the Koran,” appears in JTF-GTMO assessments as an Al Qaeda member and UBL’s “former bodyguard” who is a “HIGH risk” to American interests. Macdonald in turn symbolized Asim Al Khalaqi, deemed a “MEDIUM risk” by JTF-GTMO as a member of UBL’s 55th Arab Brigade and Al Qaeda. Benjamin, meanwhile, sported the name Jalal bin Amer, a “HIGH risk” Al Qaeda member and UBL bodyguard.
The protestors decried that these and other detainees remained in Gitmo even after being cleared for release. Yet the January 22, 2010, report of the Guantanamo Review Task Force established by Obama a year earlier considered it “important to emphasize that a decision to approve a detainee for transfer does not reflect a decision that the detainee poses no threat.” Rather, this decision reflected the “best predictive judgment” that “any threat posed by the detainee can be sufficiently mitigated through feasible and appropriate security measures in the receiving country.” Only for a “small handful of these detainees” was there “scant evidence of any involvement with terrorist groups or hostilities against Coalition forces in Afghanistan.” Worthington’s website posting of a school essay by Sammie Killmer, the 11-year old daughter of Gitmo detainee lawyer Darold Killmer, therefore merits skepticism. In it she quotes Killmer’s colleague Mari Newman describing bin Amer as someone who “talks very fast and likes pictures of very beautiful animals.”
Past experience, in contrast, highlights the real dangers of Gitmo detainees. At least 30 of the 624 detainees released from Gitmo (of 779 inmates who were ever in the camp) have resumed their jihad. One 2009 Pentagon report estimated that about 14% of all released Gitmo detainees had returned to militant activity.
Such security concerns led on January 5, 2010, in particular to a suspension of Gitmo releases to Yemen (a June 2010 court order forced one Yemeni release). Of Gitmo’s current 155 inmates, 88 hail from this especially unstable country, with 56 of these Yemenis cleared for transfer. While the demonstration continually decried this Yemeni transfer suspension, the BBC reports that Yemen, “home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),” “has no effective mechanism for rehabilitating former detainees from Guantanamo.” AQAP’s “most skilled and dangerous senior members” include Gitmo “detainees who renounced violence in exchange for their release.”
By contrast, Gitmo detainees currently inhabit a detention facility described in positive terms (e.g. a “model prison”) by three visiting European delegations. Indeed, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) legal expert John B. Bellinger III assesses that “detainees would likely be worse off” if transferred to an American prison. Although Bellinger supports Obama’s January 22, 2009, announced intention to close Gitmo, he concedes that JTF-GTMO is “humane” and “expertly run.” A 2009 Pentagon review confirmed that JTF-GTMO meets the humane treatment standards of the Geneva Conventions.
Demonstrator condemnation as torture of JTF-GTMO forced feeding in response to detainee hunger strike protests also lacks meritless. While United Nations (UN) human rights officials have correspondingly condemned Gitmo, the UN Hague war crimes tribunal itself ordered forced feeding for a hunger striking Serbian war crimes defendant. Along with the overwhelming majority of American courts dealing with the matter, California and Connecticut courts have upheld forced feeding for hunger striking domestic prison inmates. The feeding via nasal tubes imposed upon Gitmo hunger strikers, meanwhile, is a normal medical procedure for many individuals, including children. Although JTF-GTMO personnel concede a certain discomfort in forced feeding, they reject as unethical allowing detainees, often coerced into hunger striking by fellow inmates, to die in a propagandistic manner.
JTF-GTMO, meanwhile, also applies high military legal standards. Particular after Obama Administration reforms, Gitmo military commissions “are not at all the kangaroo courts some critics make them out to be,” CFR legal expert Matthew C. Waxman assesses. The Heritage Foundation concludes that these commissions afford “unprecedented rights to alien unlawful enemy combatants at trial…virtually the same” as in UN war crime tribunals. Obama, meanwhile, limited on January 22, 2009 interrogation methods used on anyone in American captivity to those in the United States Army Field Manual. Awad’s demand for full Geneva Convention applications to JTF-GTMO, however, would preclude valuable intelligence gathering interrogation altogether. Likewise the 2010 trial of Al Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani highlighted the inappropriateness of civil courts in trying war crimes, pace Awad and Benjamin.
Such arguments, though, would unlikely influence demonstrators like Mary T. Grace. A chance encounter at the museum revealed this self-professed “First Amendment believer” to have been the subject of a 1983 9-0 Supreme Court free speech victory. Yet Grace rejected equivalence between the protest in the public forum of the museum’s atrium and the legally embattled “savage/Defeat Jihad” advertisements of Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. Grace’s speech supportive of freedom’s jihadist enemies expressed in her view “tenderness and compassion…more freedom…more justice.” The “totally” dissimilar “hate speech” of Geller and Spencer condemning jihad terrorism, meanwhile, was merely “inciting to anger.” It is a strange world indeed where free individuals care more for their enemies than their defenders.