Americans Held Hostage

While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

— Eugene V. Debs1

Two hundred forty souls reside now inside the American prison at Guantanamo. Most were kidnapped and taken there by U.S. government employees. None has been charged with any crime. None has enjoyed anything resembling due process of law. Some of these 240 men were boys when they arrived – four, five, six or seven years ago. Most of them have been tortured by “trained professionals,” trained and paid by the U.S. government, by us, you and me.

These prisoners sit – abused and untried – in defiance of many rules and values on which American society prides itself. Our Constitution celebrates and protects the rights of individuals. Millions have fought and died in the past two centuries or so to preserve those precious values. But as long as the Guantanamo prisoners are denied the rights and protections enshrined in our Constitution, America is not and cannot be a free society. As Debs knew, we cannot predicate our own freedom on the oppression of others, whoever they may be. That is not true liberty.

The former vice president, Dick Cheney, argues that without the ability to kidnap people at will, to torture them without restraint and to jail them indefinitely, our country will be at greater risk of terrorist attack. He is wrong about that, as even he must know. His daughter has said that Cheney is now speaking out – after hiding out during much of his tenure in office – because he is afraid he may be prosecuted for war crimes. Cheney should be, both afraid and prosecuted. No one knows better than he does, after his many decades in power in Washington, how far outside the laws and values of our country his policies deviated.

As president, George W. Bush allowed these abuses of American values. But it was the bullyboys he set up in power – Cheney and Rumsfeld and their legal hired guns – who pushed far beyond the limits of law and decency. They did so out of fear. Bullies are cowards who hide their fears with bluster and meanness. Cheney and Rumsfeld, full of bluster, talked tough while quaking in their boots. Remember when Cheney threw out a baseball at a major league game wearing a bullet-proof vest? Who was he afraid of? Better to ask, of whom is he not afraid?

Tough-guy, sadistic cowards are familiar characters in our history and our culture. They represent one part – shameful but all too real – of human nature. It is easy in times of stress and uncertainty to give way to their shameful impulses. But acting out of fear – as bullies do – is no way to live or to run a country. Better to heed the words of the brave men, like Debs, who had the courage to go to jail for his beliefs. Or the real warriors who fight for our country, the top generals who have testified that America will be safer with Guantanamo closed and torture stopped once and for all.

In the anger, fear and panic that followed the attacks on the United States in September 2001, we allowed these bullies to command the vacuum of grief and disbelief with their long-mulled plans for U.S. military supremacy in the Middle East. They told whatever lies they thought would procure backing from the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. They ran roughshod over American values, in the name of upholding them. It is time to disavow these violations and clean up the mess they left to us. Of what are we afraid?

We voted for Barack Obama to break with this lawless regime and restore the values our Constitution honors. Mr. President, you must hold firm to your commitment to close Guantanamo. There is no prisoner there so “dangerous for America” that he does not deserve the due process of law that our society holds dear. If we cannot offer these protections, even to our avowed enemies, then there is little to choose between their values and our own. You have already articulated these beliefs. Please do not be swayed by the menacing cowardice of Cheney and his ilk, or the NIMBY legislators of your own party who would rather pander to their poll standings than do the right thing, which is to bring Guantanamo prisoners into our own prison system and try them, or to let them go. We must not be hostage to our own paranoia, our own weakest nature.

We voted for you, Mr. President, because you promised to act out of conscience, not fear. We are trusting you to abjure the brutal, fearful policies of the recent past, and restore the Constitutional values which made our country great. In you reside our hopes for the American promise that brought you to this office, that you may restore our faith in our own destiny, and the faith of our brothers and sisters around the world.

  1. Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), American labor leader and five-time presidential candidate, was the only person to run for the presidency while in prison. []
James is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Documentaries (Praeger 2006), and Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, (2015). He lives in Quito, Ecuador. Read other articles by James.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Josie Michel-Brüning said on May 31st, 2009 at 5:17am #

    Thank you very much James McEnteer for all of your good arguments.
    Occasionally, to the following: “This week, the Obama Administration filed a brief urging the Court to deny the Five a hearing. The next day, the Five’s attorneys filed their response” ( according to news I received yesterday, both legal briefs are on, I want to refer especially to:
    “As Debs knew, we cannot predicate our own freedom on the oppression of others, whoever they may be. That is not true liberty.”
    While the whole world is upset because of Guantánamo there are also thousands of people round the globe worried because of the fate of the Cuban Five being imprisoned since more than 10 years because of trying to prevent terrorism against their country originating from Miami based exile groups being supported by U.S. authorities, and as it looks like by Obama too..

  2. kalidas said on May 31st, 2009 at 6:55pm #

    And even if the whole world is not yawning at the 20,000+ Tamils killed so ruthlessly and so quickly, recently, most of the world is.

  3. Josie Michel-Brüning said on June 1st, 2009 at 6:50am #

    Dear “kalidas”, you are absolutely right. My impression is that most U.S. citizens are yawning as soon as it comes to Cuba, apart from those living in the area of Miami. Whereas the still dominating Cuban exile groups seem to be thinking of nothing else but revenge the others live more or less intimidated there while not daring to speak out for a peaceful relation with Cuba.
    Because of my poor English it is very difficult to explain why I, nevertheless, want to insist on the necessity of watching the case of the “Cuban Five”.
    There is a certain link between the Cuban Five and the detainees in Guantánamo. Once regarded as terrorists scarcely anybody of the Guantánamo detainees had a chance for proving his innocence so far, despite of the Geneva Convention and your own constitution.
    Meanwhile, a mighty group in Miami is regarding the Cuban Five as spies for their gathering of information without weapons among them about terrorist attacks against their country and warning its authorities against them. (Cuba complainde in 1999 3,478 dead and 2,099 injured people in front of the U.N. because of that.)
    The Cuban Five are not just five Cuban men, rather they represent not only Cuba, not only Latin America, but all countries wanting to develop freely, to choose their own way of life, in fact they don’t want to be attacked from outside of their country, as they don’t attack any other country, they do want to live in peace.
    The only crime of the Five: having been unregistered agents of a foreign nation. However, they acted in “defence of necessity” for preventing more dead and injured persons, they saved the live of U.S. citizens wanting to fly from central America fo Cuba.
    But now they are hostages of the U.S. as a punishment for the resistance of their country.