A Cancer on Our Democracy: What I Saw in Guantanamo

  Unity Temple
Oak Park, Illinois
29 October 2006

In August of 2005 I spent five days at the United States Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I went there to interpret for two attorneys representing prisoners who are being held in our nation’s so-called “War on Terror.” That trip earned me the distinction of being the first non-military clergy-person to meet and speak with prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. It may well be that I am the only civilian minister to have ever done so. That experience has given me a unique insight into the experience of the prisoners in that facility and my study both in preparation for the trip and subsequent to it—as well as my reflections on all that I have seen and learned—has led me to the conclusion that the greatest threat facing our American democracy at this point in our nation’s history is posed not by foreign religious extremists who hate America, but rather by the fear-inspired policies and laws that have been adopted since September 11th, 2001, in the name of safe-guarding our nation.

The Guantanamo Bay prison is a blight on our nation’s image in the world, a stain on our country’s moral credibility, and a threat to the very democracy that the men and women of our nation’s military are honor-bound to defend. I submit to you today that the Guantanamo prison is the visible manifestation of a secretive and cancerous growth within our democracy that is a threat to the principles of our political system, a threat to the foundations of our legal system, a threat to our national security, and a threat to the very moral fabric of our nation.

Before I go on, there are a couple of things that you should know about me. First, I am a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and I am an Army veteran trained to read, write, and speak Arabic. I served in Military Intelligence and was an interpreter with a peacekeeping force in the Middle East. On September 11th, 2001, three members of the religious community I serve were in the north tower of the World Trade Center; two of them were father and son. Two men escaped the tower; 25-year-old Todd Joseph Ouida was not one of them. I conducted his memorial service before his grief-stricken father, one of the two survivors. I live with the memory of September 11th everyday of my life. I assure you that my desire to see those responsible for that attack and my determination to prevent another such tragedy on American soil are second to none. Because of that, I supported our nation’s military action in Afghanistan, as did nearly the entire international community.

The second thing that you should know about me is that I believe in the “Duck Test.” You know the “Duck Test,” right? If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. And friends, what we have down in Cuba is not a detention center full of detainees . . . it’s a prison. Your prison and my prison.

But what I have seen done in our nation, and in our names, since then has left me outraged and fearful for the future of this great American democratic experiment.

I hardly need recount the litany of reactivity here in America over the past five years: enactment of the USA Patriot Act; the creation of secret prisons around the world in which brutal, coercive interrogation techniques are sanctioned by our government; the kidnapping by our intelligence services of foreign nationals and their open-ended imprisonment without legal justification for their seizure or recourse to their detention; the creation of secret military tribunals, in which the accused sees neither his accusers nor the evidence against him, the verdicts of which are not reviewable by our judicial system; unlawful, secret domestic wire-tapping; and the declaration of US citizens as “enemy combatants,” a hitherto unknown legal classification that our government has used to deny them the basic human, civil, and legal rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution of this nation.

Friends, I see a nation that has lost its moral bearing and is at risk of becoming a caricature of a functioning democracy and a shadowy vision of some the very regimes that our nation has historically—and at times heroically—opposed. I submit to you that policies that gave rise to and the current laws that make legitimate the prison in Guantanamo pose a far greater threat to our nation than any of the men currently being held in that facility in our names.

It has been proven beyond any doubt that the horrific abuses that occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were not the result of a “few bad apples” in our military, but, rather, were the logical result of the policies that led to and the tactics that were perfected in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We’ve all seen the pictures: naked men being treated like animals, hooded, terrorized by attack dogs, threatened with bodily harm. Every one of these same abuses was a part of established interrogation techniques in Guantanamo before they were exported to Iraq.

If there was no Guantanamo, there would have been no Abu Ghraib. The tortured legal interpretations that allowed Guantanamo to exist and evolve, undergirded the abuse in Iraq. Whatever you think about our nation’s involvement in Iraq, I think we can all agree that the abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison shamed our nation, endangered our military personnel in Iraq, and undermined US national security interests. We owe this to the existence of Guantanamo.

To add insult to injury, some of the architects of the policies that led to Abu Ghraib still occupy positions of power and prestige in our government, while some of the junior enlisted women and men who implemented these policies occupy cells in federal prison. That is a moral travesty and, as a former Army non-commissioned officer, I am outraged by this staggering injustice.

While I was at the prison in Cuba, I spent nearly as much time around the guards as I did talking with the prisoners. As a former Army sergeant, I struck up an easy rapport with the guards and found them to be decent, honorable citizen soldiers. After a few days, the word got out that—in addition to being a veteran—I was a minister. One day a young guard approached and asked me, “Is it true that you’re a pastor?” I replied, “Yes.” The guard said, “I’d like to talk with you.” Then, to my surprise, the guard turned around and walked away. Confused at first, I followed the guard around a corner to a spot in which no one could see or hear us talking. The guard turned to me and, in a low voice, said, “I know that there are some prisoners here who want to have attorneys, but don’t know how to get in touch with one. They ask me if I can help them, and I don’t know what to do. Pastor, what should I do?”

Friends, we have placed a generation of patriotic Americans—committed to defending our democracy—in situations that require them to violate the very morals and principles of democracy that they are pledged to defend. That is wrong.

What troubles me most deeply is how far we have strayed, driven by fear and in the name of national security, from the values and ideals for which our great nation stands. For generations, America has led the way in advancing the causes of international law, civil rights, and human rights; we have championed individual liberty, fundamental fairness, and impartial justice in civil societies. These values and ideals are our birthright and our heritage.

Over the past five years, our nation has retreated from every one of these basic American values. We have embarrassed ourselves as a society by allowing systematic abuses to take place in our names; we have driven from our side all but our most tenacious allies in the world; we have squandered all the sympathy and moral credibility that the work had conferred on us after September 11th; we have antagonized neutral populations and created enemies where none previously existed, and we have violated the simple standards of decency for which our great nation stands. It is a travesty bordering on criminality. And there has been criminal behavior which has gone unchecked and unchallenged.

Our democratic system of checks and balances is neither checking the abuse of individuals and of power nor maintaining the balance of power between the branches of our government. The Military Commission Act, which was signed into law less than two weeks ago, bestows unprecedented power on the executive branch of the government and fundamentally limits the power of the judicial branch. Rather than insist that our government abide by its own laws, we accept illegality in the name of security and amend our laws to make criminal acts policy.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1928, “In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously . . . If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law . . . To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means – to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal – would bring terrible retribution.” (dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States) If, pacified by fear, we allow the government to violate our established standards of conduct and decency, then our very society is in peril. Founding father Benjamin Franklin’s words haunt me these days: “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Our government has twice declared its own citizens (Yasir Hamdi and Jose Padilla) “enemy combatants” and imprisoned them in violation of their constitutional rights. In 2002, the CIA killed another US citizen in Yemen (Ahmed Hijazi) with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone.

Army Captain, and Muslim Chaplain, James Yee, whom I had the privilege of meeting in person last year, served at the prison in Cuba for nearly a year. A West Point graduate, he was arrested upon leaving Guantanamo, hooded, shackled, and publicly accused of (but never charged with) espionage, threatened with the death penalty, and held in solitary confinement for 76 days, without access to an attorney. When all was said and done, two minor disciplinary charges—having nothing to do with espionage—were leveled at Captain Yee, both of which were rescinded, and he was given a medal for his service in Guantanamo.

Friends, United States citizens have been and are being treated exactly the way we are treating the prisoners in Guantanamo: arrested, interrogated without an attorney, imprisoned without charges, and then quietly released when no evidence of a crime can be produced. And the dubious legality behind this imprisonment of U.S. citizens without charges is inextricably intertwined with the immorality that allows the prison in Guantanamo to exist. We have exported Guantanamo to Iraq and imported it into the United States.

And while the prisoners in Guantanamo are characterized as the “worst of the worst,” all guilty by virtue of mere accusation, a summary of U.S. government reports on the status of prisoners in Guantanamo, compiled by Unitarian attorney Josh Denbeaux, revealed that more than half of the prisoners have not been determined to have committed any hostile act against our nation or its allies. Nearly nine out of every 10 were seized by Afghani or Pakistani forces after substantial bounties were offered for the capture of al-Qaida and Taliban members.

Most of the approximately 400 prisoners who are still being held in the Guantanamo prison are entering their fifth year of imprisonment, and only 10 have been charged with a crime. The harsh circumstances of their open-ended imprisonment are inhumane and a fundamental violation of everything that our nation stands for, legally and morally. The interrogation methods to which some of them have been subjected include physical assault, sexual humiliation, and purposeful religious insults. We now know that a team of military medical and scientific personnel, including psychiatrists and psychologists, has been working at Guantanamo to “assist the interrogators” (New Yorker, 11 & 18 July 2005) and, while denying prisoners basic medical and dental care. You may not call this torture, but I call it un-American.

In March 2006—and only by court order—our government finally began releasing the names of Guantanamo prisoners. I can tell you two names: Rafiq and Muhammad. These are the Tunisian men with whom I met. To the American public they are just objects in white, beige, or orange jumpsuits appearing on the evening news. But to me, they are husbands, brothers, sons, and cousins. They are human beings. And the treatment to which they have been subjected is inhumane. They are confined in cages no larger than a generous walk-in closet in a suburban American home. When they leave their cells, they are shackled hand, foot, and waist. If they refuse to leave their cells for interrogation, they are “forcibly extracted” by a five-man team of guards wearing protective gear and bearing riot shields. If they protest their open-ended imprisonment by going on hunger strike, they are restrained in chairs and force fed by having feeding tubes forced down their noses and into their stomachs. Friends, the animals in the Brookfield Zoo are treated better than these men are and this is shameful.


When a hopeless, despairing prisoner in Guantanamo commits suicide, our government dismisses it as a propaganda ploy and as an act of “asymmetrical warfare.”

Muhammad knows the feeling of hopelessness and despair. Years ago, he fled the repressive government in Tunisia to make a better life in Europe. Unable to find a place for himself in western society—a familiar story, if you’ve been watching the world news for the past year—he moved to Pakistan, where he started a honey business, and married. In the months following the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, he was riding in a truck, on his way to buy medication for his wife, when he was arrested by Pakistani forces and sold to the Americans in Afghanistan for $5,000. He has a weak heart, kidney problems, and suffers from a number of chronic diseases. By our government’s own account, they have no reason to believe he ever was or is now a threat to anyone, but he is entering his fifth year in Guantanamo . . . arrested for a bounty, imprisoned on suspicion, never charged with a crime, and subjected to ruthless interrogation. This is unconscionable . . . and it is being done in our names.

But our government does not want you to know about Muhammad as a valuable, unique human being, with hopes, fears, and rights . . . just like you and me. He, and every other prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, has value to our government, not as a source of actionable intelligence as some would claim, but as a symbol and an object. A symbol of the undeclared and unending “War on Terror” that we are reminded of daily and as an object of fear. The minute he is seen and experienced by us as a three-dimensional human being, he will cease to be of any value to our government. In fact, if we experienced him as a subject, then his on-going incarceration would create a problem for our nation.

That is why the newly enacted Military Commission Act includes a provision that would prevent prisoners like Muhammad from challenging the grounds of their imprisonment in Guantanamo. On the day the Act was signed, the Justice Department moved to have all the Habeas Corpus lawsuits, filed on behalf of prisoners, thrown out of federal court.

You all know the symbol of democracy in our country, right? It’s a woman wearing a blindfold holding the scales of justice in one hand. In this land, justice is supposed to be blind, not us, the citizens, blind to injustice being perpetrated in our names.

Justice isn’t blind in America today: she’s hooded, shackled, and held in solitary confinement with the attack dogs of extremism and fear snarling in her face and snapping at her heels—and in the faces and at the heels of any decent, patriotic American who dares speak out for truth, fairness, and mercy in this land.

Seeing every human being as unique and inherently worthy is precisely what Jesus admonishes us to do in the Gospel of Matthew, a passage from which I shared with you earlier (Matt. 25:31-40.) Whether it be by a dispenser of cosmic justice or by the unflinching eye of history, every nation will be judged for its actions, “[b]efore him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

And the measure of any society and its people will be its treatment of and regard for the most vulnerable of those in its charge, be they its sons or strangers, its daughters or its detainees. I think of Muhammad languishing in that prison, stripped of his human dignity, ailing and alone in a cell and the words of the Gospel whisper in my heart, ‘“Lord, when … did we see thee naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “… as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”’

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is our prison: it is your and it is my prison. All that has been done in that prison has been done in our names. And I, for one, cannot accept this any longer. Not in my name.

We face a moral turning point in our nation’s history; we will either excise the disease that is spreading from Guantanamo and threatening our American way of life, or we will succumb as a society to its ravages and the American way of life as we know it will die. As patriotic citizens and people of faith, we must demand the immediate closure of the Guantanamo prison and insist that the sterilizing light of open and public examination be brought to bear not just on the prison itself, but on the policies and persons that have allowed this facility to exist.

The future of our nation, and all for which it stands, is at stake.