“Honor Bound to Defend Freedom”

Murat Kurnaz after spending five years at Guantanamo Bay

This week, we have been reading and discussing Five Years of my Life: An innocent Man in Guantanamo by Murat Kurnaz.  As the title suggests, Kurnaz was arrested under false charges and spent five years moving between torture camps.  His journey began in Pakistan on a bus that was supposed to take him to the airport to go home to Germany.  At a routine checkpoint, police spotted Kurnaz and asked him to step off the bus.  There was no reason for this, other than the fact the he “looked different than the other passengers” (27).  He spent a few weeks in Pakistani jail before being taken by American soldiers to Kandahar, Afghanistan.  Here, he was regularly tortured and interrogated. He was accused of being a terrorist and posing a threat to the United States.  Ultimately, he was taken to a prison camp in Guantanamo where the torture continued to get worse.

So why would the United States keep a man in prison if they knew he was innocent?  In fact, the majority of prisoners from Guantanamo has ever been convicted of committing a crime.  They were all being held because they were suspected of fighting against the United States, but people at all levels of the military hierarchy knew that these accusations were false.  During interrogations, these officials would claim to have evidence that supported their charges, but Kurnaz knew it was all part of their plan.  “The evidence that [the judge] cited was that I was a close friend of a suicide bomber and that I belonged to the Jama’at al-Tablighi because I had received support and food from this group” (198).  It turns out that the “suicide bomber” they were referring was alive and well once Kurnaz was released from prison, therefore invalidating this claim.  However, ff. people found out that the United States was guilty of arbitrary detention, torture, and murder, their reputation would be tarnished.  However, if prisoners signed forms saying that they were part of Al Qaeda or had been plotting against the United States, their actions would be justified in some sense.

Needless to be said, the prison is still running.  “Approximately 180 detainees remain behind the wire and within the walls of the seven camps that comprise Camp Delta.”  One of Obama’s campaign promises was to close down Guantanamo, but the deadline he set has already passed.  An article in The Washington Independent discusses what actions would need to be taken in order for this facility to close down: “The Defense Department has asked Congress for $350 million for all aspects of closing the Guantanamo detention facility and purchasing a new Illinois prison to house the residual population that has yet to be tried or repatriated (as well as about 48 detainees the administration seeks to hold in indefinite detention).  So what is really going to happen is we are going to close Guantanamo in Cuba and re-open it in the United States?  Purchasing a new prison in Illinois does not guarantee better treatment for detainees or their release.  I understand that the United States does not want former prisoners to speak out against the United States, but by keeping them in prison longer, they are only making the situation worse.  People from all around the world are aware of the human rights violations that are occurring at these prisons and the United States’ reputation is already destroyed.

Note the ironic juxtaposition

A topic of discussion that kept coming up in class this week was who to blame for these crimes and whether or not these actions can be justified.  Some students argued that we should place the blame on the military officials that ordered soldiers to act this way.  If soldiers refused these orders, they could lose their jobs and potentially be imprisoned.  Even under these circumstances, torturing other human beings cannot be justified.  The prison guards, IRF team, doctors, high-ranking military officials, etc. are all guilty of committing serious crimes and need to be held accountable.  I was particularly shocked when I read about the doctors at these prison camps.  When prison guards would hang Kurnaz from the ceiling by his arms, he would be left for days at a time.  Approximately every five days, a doctor would come in and check to make sure he was alive.  Other doctors performed unnecessary amputations on patients.  As a doctor, you have to ensure the well being of the people in your care.  These doctors were aware that detainees were being starved and beaten, but simply complied with orders.  However, there were a few individuals at Guantanamo that did not blindly obey their superiors.  When Kurnaz asked a guard why he did not participate in the beating of prisoners, the guard said, “I’m a human being just like you.  What is happening here, is inhuman” (193).  As refreshing as these examples are, I still feel that these individuals are guilty.  Although they were not directly involved, they were bystanders.  Perhaps accountability can be looked at on a continuum.  Every person at Guantanamo could have potentially refused to carry out the orders, but only a select few chose to do this.  Although they were guilty, they cannot be compared to those that regularly tortured prisoners.

When looking at these examples, I think it is important to think about why people join the armed forces in the first place.  If someone chooses to join the armed forces, there are many benefits ranging from job training to paid room and board.  This is often the only way for people to afford an education and leave their hometown.  By challenging their superiors, soldiers put themselves at risk of losing everything they have worked to attain and being forced to return to the life they chose to leave behind.  Overall, each person needs to realize that they are responsible for their actions regardless of outside forces and circumstances.  Some individuals were involved directly and some were merely bystanders.  Although they are all guilty, it is important to distinguish between them.

The article that I mentioned also brought up the role of the media in raising awareness about Guantanamo.  As I have said before, I feel that the media has the potential to bring about great change, but often fails to do so because of corruption.  In regards to Guantanamo, there are numerous reasons why the information that the public is told is inaccurate and misleading.  First of all, when journalists visit Guantanamo, they are taken on a special tour.  They are not shown the rooms where prisoners’ heads are held underwater while being punched in the stomach hung by their arms from the ceiling for days at a time or the six by seven foot cells where they are chained to the floor at all times.  “Nothing in the camp is the way it seems, nothing is the way the U.S. Army says it is and as it has been reported, filmed, and photographed my journalists.  There are cages and interrogation rooms that have been specially constructed for the media” (157).  Naturally, this would make sense to an outsider.  The United States does not want people to see what actually happens at Guantanamo.  In order to manipulate the public, they need to manipulate the media.  Once journalists leave the prison, they are forced to sign a release that says they will not leak any confidential information.

Lastly, it is interesting to see how the media constructs the events that happened.  At one point, Kurnaz confronted an American interrogator about the lies that were being published in American newspapers about him.  The American’s response was, “Yes, we know it… But the people on the outside don’t know it.  It’s none of our business.  Journalists write whatever they want” (112).  Then, he laughed.  This further proves the point that the media inaccurately represents the United States in order to maintain it’s image as superior to others.  Again, I am astonished that the United States puts itself on a pedestal as far as upholding and guaranteeing human rights.  The United States is not a nation built upon ideals of freedom; it is based on corruption, marginalization, and reinforcing the social hierarchy. Guantanamo is just one example to support this statement.

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