Leading article: Ten years on, the shame of Guantanamo remains

Far from a masterstroke, Guantanamo Bay is an enduring blot on America's good name

Share
Related Topics

Exactly four months ago, America and the world commemorated the 10th anniversary of the deadliest and most spectacular terrorist attack in history. Today marks a related and, in some respects, no less sombre 10th anniversary – that of the entry into business of the now infamous prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

On 11 January 2002, the first batch of 20 captives, picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan, arrived at the detention centre on the US naval base on the island of Cuba, shackled, hooded and clad in orange jumpsuits. Initially, to a country still traumatised by the 9/11 attacks, the camp seemed a masterstroke. It was unequivocally American territory, yet safely distant from the mainland and, therefore, the George W Bush administration claimed, beyond the reach of the US Constitution and the safeguards contained therein. A perfect place, in other words, to lock away "illegal combatants" not protected by the usual rules of war.

After all, were not these captives "the worst of the worst", in the words of the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Were they not men so dangerous and desperate that, General Richard Myers maintained, they would "chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 [transport plane] down?" Ten years on, such sentiments have never seemed as foolish. Far from being a masterstroke, Guantanamo Bay has proved an unmitigated disaster, unnecessary in its own right and an enduring blot on the good name of a superpower that claims to be a beacon for liberty, justice and human rights.

At its peak, Guantanamo held some 500 individuals. In all, 775 prisoners have passed through, most of whom have either been released or sent back to their home countries. Only a tiny handful have actually been tried and convicted. Much may have changed since 2002: the outdoor cages and bleak interrogation huts that greeted the first arrivals have been replaced by a purpose-built prison. Conditions have undoubtedly improved from the early years, when detainees were abused. Legal protection has also improved: in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that inmates should be accorded the protection of the US Constitution.

But flagrant injustices remain. Of the 171 prisoners who are still at Guantanamo, a relatively small number – such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others accused of organising the September 11 attacks – can genuinely be counted "the worst of the worst". The rest are small fry, many of them innocent of any crime: some simply sold to US troops for bounty, others guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet they remain in a legal limbo that has spurred despair and hundreds of suicide attempts, at least four of them successful. Shaker Aamer, the last British resident still being held at the prison, has been there for a decade but has never even been charged. According to his lawyer, Mr Aamer is "falling apart at the seams".

By his second term, even President Bush had concluded that the damage to America's global standing far outweighed any good Guantanamo might be doing, and that the prison should be closed – but nothing happened. Barack Obama went even further. First, he vowed to shut the facility within a year of taking office, by January 2009. A year later, he proposed to transfer the detainees to an unused federal prison in Illinois. Again, to no avail. In the past year, not a single inmate has been released.

The culprit for this shameful state of affairs? Congress. In an all-too-rare display of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats have combined to block every initiative from the White House to deal with Guantanamo. Faced with such intransigence, Mr Obama can do nothing – and the canker rotting away at America's reputation endures.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Manufacturing Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a rare opportunity for ...

Recruitment Genius: Conveyancing Fee Earner / Technical Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Fee Earner/Techn...

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This law firm is seeking a happy, helpful and ...

The Jenrick Group: Production Supervisor

£26000 - £29000 per annum + Holidays & Pension: The Jenrick Group: Production ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'