Monday, January 3, 2011
Fear, Nationalism, and Ignorance: The Sins of Guantanamo Bay
Last week, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said “It’s probably going to be a while” before Obama can fulfill his promise to close Guantanamo Bay. That Gitmo is a stain on the nation’s image and possibly a fuel for anti-American terrorist activities has been said too many times, by too many people; these arguments hardly merit repetition. But even more important than our image, and the prudential considerations concerning our safety is our duty before God. Before a God who loves and a Christ who is the prince of peace, we have disdainfully detained and violently treated innocent men who happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time and of course of the wrong religion. It is not only embarrassing; it is sinful.
It is now well documented that a majority of those detained at Guantanamo Bay are not and have never been sworn enemies of the United States and posed no security risk to Americans prior to their having been subjected to torture and unlawful detention, which may have inevitably led to their radicalization. Many of those whom the government has admitted are not guilty or cannot be proven guilty remain detained. And even worst, the detainees have been subjected to human rights abuses, such as receiving unsafe dosages of malaria drugs to treated conditions which they were never shown to have.
Yet, it is unlikely that anything resembling justice will occur at Guantanamo. This is not only due to callousness of the Bush administration officials like Dick Cheney, or even the incompetence of the Obama administration. No, the enemy is us. It is our silence and flouting of the Gospel mandate to love our neighbor as ourselves that most explains this travesty.
The first Guantanamo sin is fear. Three-hundred and sixty five times, the Scriptures say, “Be not afraid.” Yet, all of us have a hard time heeding those words. We regularly allow fear to dictate public policy. As a result of the attacks of 9-11, American citizens have permitted the United States government to violate the rights of citizens and foreigners alike. It is fear that has led to two wars that have cost more American lives than were killed during the September 11 attacks as well as hundreds of thousands of uncounted Afghanistan and Iraqi citizens. And it is fear that dictates that terror suspects must be detained without trial, cannot be tried in a United States court, and cannot be released when they are clearly innocent.
While the fear of terrorism is real, it is grossly out of proportion to the risk that it poses. The fact is that Americans are far more likely to be victimized by domestic criminals. Yet, no war has been declared on murder, rape, or armed robbery. And no one has suggested that the government indefinitely detain those who might be inclined to murder, rape, or rob despite there being no evidence that that they have done so. Likewise, terrorism does not justify the indefinite detention and mistreatment of prisoners.
And it is this double standard that brings us to the second Guantanamo sin and that is nationalism. Yes, nationalism. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). While the Scriptures proclaim the oneness of the human race, human beings eagerly revert to atavistic tribalism. Peoples all over the world are inclined to think that there is some great virtue in giving preferential treatment to those who happened to have been born within the same arbitrarily set border as themselves. It is purportedly the pinnacle of morality to place American lives as well as American rights over those of others around the world.
Even in our Churches this preferential treatment is rampant; for while prayer petitions are routinely offered for US soldiers (which is a good thing to do), they are never offered for Arabs who suffer as a result of these two wars. Yet, they suffer far more than Americans. A conservative estimate of the collateral damage of the Iraqi war indicates that over 66,000 Iraqis have died, over 175,000 have been injured, and almost 2 million have been displaced. Do these victims not deserve at least our prayers?
In the case of the detainees, many Americans cannot countenance the thought that foreigners are equally entitled to the natural rights protected by the United States constitution. That many of these men were born in places where such rights are not acknowledge is tragic but they are no less deserving of them. For these truths are not the patented inventions of Americans, but rather they are self-evident truths endowed by the creator. When Americans acknowledge that even suspected terrorists have a right to due process, they are not being naïve, they are simply assenting to the truth. And when Christians proclaim that Muslim prisoners must be treated with justice, they are being faithful to God.
The third Guantanamo sin is ignorance. Thomas Aquinas said that ignorance of that which one is required to know in order to act morally is sin. But for many Americans ignorance is bliss. Many of us have had a few good laughs at watching television programs mocking those who know a great deal about the private affairs of celebrities but do not recognize the vice president. Yet, this ignorance is far from harmless. It is this ignorance and nonchalance that allows government officials to carry out these injustices. Surely, Americans have a duty to care about those activities which are authorized by their representatives and funded by their tax dollars.
Like many Americans, I participated in this ignorance. Like many Catholics, I placed overturning Roe vs. Wade above all other issues of justice. And in the hope of seating one more pro-life judge, I accepted the logic of the Bush administration that there is a special class of people called “enemy combatants” who deserve neither the protection of the United States Constitution nor the Geneva Conventions. I, furthermore, justified this position by giving little credence to those voices that exposed the injustices, which occurred in Guantanamo. I said, these people were leftists and naive of the necessities national security and for a very long time, I ignored them. For this ignorance, I repent and I ask you to do likewise.