When the September 11th terrorist attacks occurred, I was a young teenager developing a personal interest in the world around me and the politics that controlled it. However, there wasn’t much to discuss in the aftermath of 9/11. President Bush had announced that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” and I certainly wanted to be with “us.” At that time, few of “us” discussed controversial topics like interrogation, torture, or how to respect human rights during the War on Terror. At school, discussions rarely focused on current events, and when they did, they glorified America’s democratic values and its exceptionalist nature.
Meanwhile, the executive branch and their legal team commenced a plan to interrogate detainees at the newly designated detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in order to obtain important intelligence that would end terrorism and ensure domestic tranquility. These detainees, described as “unlawful combatants” by Washington, would not be entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions, a collection of laws for international warfare that the U.S. had adhered to for more than 100 years.
A new set of interrogation principles, commonly called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” were devised to coerce information from detainees. Included on this list were techniques that constituted torture under the Geneva Conventions, including stress positions and waterboarding. Attorney John Yoo then issued the “Torture Memo” in August 2002, which defined torture only as “extreme acts” that resulted in “death or organ failure,” setting few boundaries on executive action in the War on Terror. This was followed by a December 2002 memo written by attorney William J. Haynes and signed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that allowed for harsh interrogation techniques such as the use of dogs, removal of clothing, and interrogations that could last as long as twenty hours. Yoo also updated his “Torture Memo,” which stated that the President could authorize the use of torture, including gouging of the eyes and disabling limbs.
A 2007 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that torture did occur during interrogations at Guantánamo, including beatings, confinement in a box, forced shaving, and waterboarding. Despite these disturbing revelations and the ICRC’s vocal stance against torture, a 2009 Gallup Poll found that fifty-five percent of Americans thought that the use of harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists was justified. How could this be so?
Ten years have passed since the first detainees arrived at Guantánamo; the discussion between “us” thus far has been limited. Torture has been trivialized, while government secrecy has created confusion. However, The Guantánamo Public Memory Project presents a reminder of the importance of remembering the challenges of recent history. The actions of the U.S. government in maintaining its global hegemony since 9/11 have real consequences for the preservation of basic human rights worldwide, and they challenge one to ask how a liberal democracy could condone torture. For “us,” it’s time to discuss interrogation and torture at Guantánamo further, so that we can lead the push to end unlawful torture practices worldwide.
Posted by Nick Sacco – Public History M.A. candidate at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis 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.