“If someone didn’t live through it, didn’t experience it, they would know nothing about it,” a man I interviewed for another project once told me, referring to a place and time that held deep meaning for him. What can those of us who’ve never been to Guantánamo know about it?
There’s knowledge derived from reading and research. Before I started interning with the Guantánamo Public Memory Project this past summer, I had learned some things about GTMO. They were mostly from news reports over the last ten years, when the U.S. naval base has become synonymous with the prison camp for suspected Al-Qaeda members. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten a much fuller idea of the sweep of GTMO’s history, from Columbus to the Spanish-American War to the War on Terror. So I do “know” it, in some sense, and have my ideas about what it means. But I know very little about daily experience there, about the events that don’t end up sprawled across the pages of newspapers or analyzed in history books.
Then there’s knowledge that comes from speaking to someone with firsthand experience. In June, I interviewed a woman who attended W.T. Sampson High School for two years in the 1980s. She told me about good times with her family, close ties she formed with classmates, teachers, and friends, the excitement of participating in (and with other high school kids, making a mockery of) a defense drill. It was a period of her life that still shapes her. Through her I learned why the base has such meaning for so many, how it brings former residents together –via everything from reunions to Facebook groups – decades after they left it. It was a perspective I couldn’t understand until I heard it in that interview, and it was enormously valuable.
I don’t mean to imply that only the people who have lived in a place or experienced an event can tell us about it, that we are hopelessly ignorant without them. We need historians and projects like this one to try to synthesize many stories, to leave a larger audience with an appreciation of the meanings of places and events to the people whose lives they touch, to fight against our own tendencies to romanticize blindly or denigrate unfairly. And everyone’s story is different.
Melissa wrote on this blog a couple months back, “Guantánamo is about people.” If there’s one thing I think this project represents, it’s that the history of this place – really, of almost any place – is multivocal. It’s about the people who were there, shaped the place and were shaped by it. That’s not to privilege their voices above others. It’s to say that it is through these accounts that we can better understand – if maybe never “know” – the history of GTMO. We learn so much more by admitting that we have so much more to learn. Knowing that inevitably, we won’t quite get it right. And it is by being aware of our own ignorance that we can better struggle to do that work of synthesis, better foster reflection and conversation instead of anger and division. Above all, we have to listen.
This project isn’t about glorifying anything. It’s about reflecting that GTMO means different things to different people. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree or sympathize with others, or that we can’t judge them. But we do have to understand that their voices are part of GTMO’s history too. Depending on whom you ask, it may be a place of pride or shame, hope or fear, refuge or prison, community or isolation – the best of America, the worst of it, or as GTMO has so often been in its history, in some gray area in between. That’s what makes this history so complicated. That’s what makes it so fascinating. That’s why, even if we know nothing about it, listening is how we start.
Nate Weisenberg is a master’s student in Public Humanities at Brown University and a research intern with the Guantánamo Public Memory Project.
Brown University is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.