On Friday January 17, 2014, as the last public event of my two-week US tour calling for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, I spoke at a wonderfully well-attended event at California State Polytechnic (Cal Poly) in Pomona, California, attended by several hundred students and arranged by Dennis Loo, a professor of sociology at the university, and a member of the steering committee of the World Can’t Wait, the campaigning group whose national director is Debra Sweet, and who I am enormously grateful to for organizing the tour.
The event, I’m glad to note, was filmed, and the video is posted below, via YouTube. My talk begins around 10 minutes into the video, after Dennis introduced the event by reading out World Can’t Wait’s full-page advertisement that ran in the New York Times last year, and it ended at around 31 minutes.
In my talk, I ran through the history of the prison — explaining the horrible innovation of holding men neither as criminal suspects nor as prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions, how torture was authorized at the prison (through George W. Bush’s Presidential memo of February 7, 2002, which I recently wrote about here), and what types of torture techniques were used on the prisoners.
I then moved on to explain why Guantánamo is still open, despite President Obama’s promise to close it on his second day in office in January 2009, as I did throughout my tour — explaining how he appointed a high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force to review the cases of all the prisoners, and how he accepted an alarming recommendation that 48 men should continue to be detained without charge or trial on the extremely dubious and thoroughly unacceptable basis that they are too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence exists to establish this in a courtroom.
I also spoke about the serious obstacles to the release of prisoners that were raised by Congress, which were certainly significant, although a waiver in the legislation (the National Defense Authorization Act) always allowed the president to bypass Congress if he wished to, and if he regarded it as being in the national security interests of the United States — something that President Obama eloquently confirms to be the case every time he speaks about Guantánamo. The fact that he failed to do so indicates that he was unwilling to spend political capital freeing prisoners and fulfilling his promise to close the prison.
I also made a particular point of stressing how profoundly unacceptable it is for the task force to have cleared for release 76 of the remaining 155 prisoners over four years ago, and yet for these men still to be held, and explained how 55 of these men — plus another man just cleared for release via a Periodic Review Board — are Yemenis, who continue to be held because of fears about the security situation in Yemen, despite the fact that no justification can be made for holding cleared people on the basis of their nationality alone.
There was much more in my talk, and I hope you have the time to watch it, and also to watch Dennis’s talk (in which, amongst other topics, he provided a detailed explanation of the worrying provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act mandating military detention without charge or trial for terror suspects), and the extremely interesting Q&A session that followed, beginning at 53 minutes. I’m delighted to report that the majority of the students stayed for the Q&A session, and that many of them asked questions which showed that the event had had a significant impact.
This has also been confirmed through reports submitted by students after the event. I hope to be able to present a collection of these comments in the near future, but in the meantime I’m delighted that two students’ analyses of the event have been made available via Dennis.
The first comes from an article Dennis wrote, analyzing the work of the educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, who, as he put it, “described two basic stages to cognitive development. The first and lower stage consists of recognition and recall, comprehension and application. The second, and higher, stage consists of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Higher education should be designed to ensure that students achieve this higher stage.”
Evaluation is the highest stage of cognitive development in Bloom’s taxonomy. It builds upon all of the preceding. It is the ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of an argument and compare and contrast different arguments. It is Meta-Analysis. Without this, you would be unable to reach a true independent judgment. Instead, you would have to accept the opinions of others. A plethora of information is available today, and information is, of course, important. But what is even more important is the ability to sift through the information and sources and the ability to figure out what’s valid and what is not.
He also stated:
If you don’t receive training — and this does require training as it doesn’t happen to people spontaneously — in how to recognize and evaluate the underlying assumptions and value judgments of framing, then you are vulnerable to being roped into accepting something that you would otherwise not have accepted. That is why you cannot really think on your own and draw your own conclusions if you aren’t schooled in how to pierce the surface appearances of things and examine their value-laden assumptions. As an illustration of this, around 240 students went to our campus program “Close Guantánamo Now!” on January 17, 2014, and were shocked to learn that what they had been told was going on and therefore thought was going on — that Guantánamo housed the “worst of the worst” of terrorists, known and proven to be terrorists — was untrue.
Dennis then quoted from a paper that a student, Erin Frame, wrote in response to the “Close Guantánamo Now!” program. She wrote:
[M]ost of the information I was given by Dr. Loo and Andy Worthington was content that I had not come across before. Before I attended the event, my knowledge of the prison at Guantánamo Bay was extremely limited. The only thing I had heard about this place was that its prisoners consisted of dangerous terrorists. I had no idea that the majority of these people were innocent, captured and detained with no substantial evidence, and tortured. I was not aware that the families of these people were not even notified where they were or why they had been taken. The mainstream media was responsible for all of the information I received on the prison, and it was hardly sufficient. The mystery and false information surrounding Guantánamo Bay compares to that which surrounded the invasion of Iraq. Both instances involve breaking laws and hurting innocent people and in both situations, the American public was poorly informed.
When the Bush administration broke international law and committed the supreme war crime by invading a nation that had not threatened it, me and millions of Americans were not aware that this was illegal. I remember being confused as to why the US was at war, but believed at least that it was to fight terrorists just like I believed terrorists were being held at Guantánamo Bay. In both instances, I was wrong. Now that I have been enlightened to some of the truths behind Guantánamo Bay, I am aware that I now belong to a small minority of other informed people while the rest of the American citizenry remain shrouded in lies. I am aware that in order to take sufficient steps towards closing Guantánamo Bay, a much larger proportion of the population needs to be adequately informed about its illegality. Perhaps then, US citizens can put enough pressure on President Obama to leave him no choice but to shut down the establishment.
Dennis added, “This student’s self-description of having ‘extremely limited’ knowledge about Guantánamo (and about Iraq before taking her current class with me) matches the situation for the vast majority of Americans who are ‘shrouded in lies.'”
Below is another student’s perspective on the event:
The terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay is a little discussed topic in American society today. The first time I ever even heard of this prison was in the comedic movie “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantánamo Bay.” The fact that the first many people heard of this prison was in a comedy movie speaks volumes about the knowledge that is made readily available to the general public. Today the prison at Guantánamo is an extremely well known blemish on American society. But while it is well known do we as a society know enough to form an opinion on the matter? I know for a fact that prior to the Guantánamo event I did not have the knowledge to form an opinion on the matter, but after hearing the speakers at the event the basic knowledge has been given to me so I can research further and build upon this knowledge to form my own opinion.
The first point brought up in the event and one that I believe is the most important is the fact that if President Obama wanted to close down Guantánamo Bay he could do it today with his power as commander and chief. On his second day in office President Obama stated that he would shut down Guantánamo Bay and yet he has not done so yet. In fact he seems to have just tried to keep everything about it kept quiet. It may end up being that President Obama sees out his second term without fulfilling this promise to the American people. The reason why he should shut it down is the second point I would like to bring from the event and that is that the acts that our government is committing at Guantánamo Bay directly go against the rules outlined by the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention was in response to the Second World War and the rules it put in place were to save humans from themselves. Humans can be the most violent and evil species on the planet as seen many times by our actions during war time throughout history. Look at Vlad the Impaler or Hitler, both violently murdered people just for being on the opposite side of what they believed to make an example out of them.
The Geneva Convention was [intended] to make sure that instances like this were to never happen again. It specifically stated that Prisoners of War were not to be tortured. Yet we see in Guantánamo Bay that these prisoners are tortured in many different ways including sleep deprivation and force feeding. Bush was able to partially get around this by calling these prisoners “illegal enemy combatants” instead of Prisoners of War. None of these men that are being held in Guantánamo Bay has ever faced a trial either and yet American law dictates that we have the right to a trial by jury. These prisoners who are sitting in an American prison do not have the rights that are promised in America. How does the government get around this?
President Bush was able to use a technical gray area to avoid these issues. By having this site at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, Bush was able to find a loophole because the prison is not on American soil. This gave the government wiggle room that they needed to be able to justify the treatment of prisoners on a legal basis because our judiciary system does not have the authority to rule on issues that are on the soil of other countries. The majority of the prisoners that make up the population of Guantánamo Bay were kidnapped from their countries and are held without any evidence and have been held for in some cases 12 years. These prisoners have not even had their cases seen by a judge let alone a trial court with a jury. […]
The fact that there are currently 56 men sitting in Guantánamo Bay that have been cleared to be released who have not yet been released should spark outrage in our society yet until I watched the event I had no idea about these men. President Obama himself put a ban on releasing these men back into the world and even after he lifted the ban these men still rot away in the prison. This was just one of the many things that I had not heard before the event. I had almost no knowledge of Guantánamo Bay because largely everybody tries to keep it hush hush because we don’t want to spark outrage. The only things that are told to the general public are that these men are all a danger to society and that they deserve to be in prison. These statements insinuate that there is extensive evidence implicating all of these men to serious terrorist activities yet, as we can see based on the imminent release of 56 prisoners due to lack of evidence, this is not the case. This is probably the biggest detail that I thought I knew before as compared to now. The way the government tells us to think about Guantánamo Bay and those who are in it serves only them in that the general population will not react negatively if we keep believing that these men are all out to see America destroyed and Americans slaughtered by the thousands.
In short it became apparent to me that the public is not well enough informed about Guantánamo Bay to form their own opinions. Based on my own personal knowledge both before and after watching the event I can say that the general public has been done a great disservice by our government trying to keep everything that is done at Guantánamo a secret. For everything we think we know about the prison there are probably another three things that the government has managed to keep hidden from us.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
On Facebook, Pauline Kiernan wrote:
Thanks as always, Pauline, for your interest.
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