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Karen Greenberg, Confronting America’s Forever Prison

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In March 2007, Karen Greenberg reported on a visit she had made to the war-on-terror prison camp at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and what it felt like to be distinctly offshore of American justice.  She began that piece this way: “Several weeks ago, I took the infamous media tour of the facilities at Guantánamo. From the moment I arrived on a dilapidated Air Sunshine plane to the time I boarded it heading home, I had no doubt that I was on a foreign planet or, at the very least, visiting an impeccably constructed movie set. Along with two European colleagues, I was treated to two-days-plus of a military-tour schedule packed with site visits and interviews (none with actual prisoners) designed to ‘make transparent’ the base, its facilities, and its manifold contributions to our country’s national security.”

In my introduction to that piece, I wrote an initial paragraph that, I think, still catches the essence of American justice at Gitmo in those years:

“Once upon a time, our offshore prison at Guantánamo was the sort of place where even an American National Guardsman, only pretending to be a recalcitrant prisoner ‘extracted’ from a cell for training purposes, could be beaten almost senseless. This actually happened to 35-year-old ‘model soldier’ Sean Baker, who had been in Gulf War I and signed on again immediately after the World Trade Center went down. His unit was assigned to Guantánamo and he volunteered to be just such a ‘prisoner,’ donning the requisite orange uniform on January 24, 2003. As a result of his ‘extraction’ and brutal beating, he was left experiencing regular epileptic-style seizures 10 to 12 times a day. (And remember the Immediate Reaction Force team of MPs that seized him, on finally realizing that he wasn’t a genuine prisoner, broke off their assault before finishing the job.)”

Greenberg ended her report then this way: “Those who fail to reproduce the official narrative are not welcome back. ‘Tell it the wrong way and you won’t be back,’ one of our escorts warns me over lunch.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that she’s never been back. In addition to her early book on the nightmare that became Guantánamo, however, she’s returned to the subject at TomDispatch for years and here she is again, more than two decades after the first prisoner arrived there.  Both of us can only hope that it finally is the last time. Tom

Guantánamo’s First 7,627 Days

Will America’s Forever Prison Finally Close on Biden’s Watch?

As of December 8, 2022, Guantánamo Bay detention facility -- a prison offshore of American justice and built for those detained in this country's never-ending Global War on Terror -- has been open for nearly 21 years (or, to be precise, 7,627 days). Thirteen years ago, I published a book, The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days. It told the story of the military officers and staff who received the prison's initial detainees at that U.S. naval base on the island of Cuba early in 2002. Like the hundreds of prisoners that followed, they would largely be held without charges or trial for years on end.

Ever since then, time and again, I’ve envisioned writing the story of its ultimate closure, its last days. Today, eyeing the moves made by the Biden administration, it seems reasonable to review the past record of that prison's seemingly never-ending existence, the failure of three presidents to close it, and what if anything is new when it comes to one of the more striking scenes of ongoing injustice in American history.  

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Rebecca Gordon, Three Conversations about Politics

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Since I turned 18, I doubt I’ve ever missed a vote. Certainly, though, I never missed a presidential election. In 1968, at age 24, for instance, already swept away by the anti-Vietnam War movement, I voted for antiwar Democrat Eugene McCarthy in the New York primary. Even though McCarthy would win the popular vote nationally in the Democratic primaries, he lost the nomination, in a distinctly controversial fashion, at the Democratic convention to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, hardly an antiwar sort of guy. Still, in the election to come, I voted for him, only to see Republican Richard Nixon (of the notorious “Southern strategy” and later Watergate infamy) beat him nationally, become president, and later expand that American war in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. (Note that Alabama segregationist governor George Wallace won more than 5% of New York State’s vote that year, a reminder with Nixon that there has long been a Trumpian quality to American politics.) And then, four years later, I would vote for George McGovern, again to end that war, only to watch Nixon win for the second time in a landslide (even in New York!). Sigh.

Still, to this day, I do go out and vote, although, on my way to the polls, I sometimes have to ask my wife whom I should vote for farther down the ticket. So, in my modest, haphazard fashion, I’ve participated in American politics, but never, like TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, just back from the front lines of the recent midterm elections, in actual campaign work. Not since, as a child on Halloween, I took a donation container door to door in my apartment building for UNICEF, have I ever, as Gordon describes so vividly today, tried to directly convince anyone to do anything political in a campaign of any sort. (And given the recent midterms, as you’ll see when you read her piece today, thank heavens she, and so many other political activists like her, did so in a big-time way!) She has what she calls a “political vocation” and, given our present American world, the 2022 election season, and the 2024 version to come, thank goodness she, like so many others, does.

Still, I wouldn’t claim that I had no political vocation whatsoever. In my own fashion, here at TomDispatch, I’ve labored week after week, month after month, trying to put crucial information about how our world actually works and who is (and isn’t) responsible for that in front of anyone willing to read such pieces. And that, in its own fashion, has, I suppose, been my vocation, my version, you might say, of going out on the campaign trail — though what the reader does with anything I publish at this website is, of course, up to him or her.  Now, if you want to think a little about what your own vocation in life might be, political or otherwise, check out Gordon. Tom

Living for Politics

Or “Just Living”?

“Welcome back!” read my friend Allan’s email. “So happy to have you back and seeing that hard work paid off. Thank you for all that you do. Please don't cook this evening. I am bringing you a Honduran dinner -- tacos hondureños and baleadas, plus a bottle of wine.” The tacos were tasty indeed, but even more pleasing was my friend’s evident admiration for my recent political activities.

My partner and I had just returned from four months in Reno, working with UNITE-HERE, the hospitality industry union, on their 2022 midterm electoral campaign. It’s no exaggeration to say that, with the votes in Nevada’s mostly right-wing rural counties cancelling out those of Democratic-leaning Las Vegas, that union campaign in Reno saved the Senate from falling to the Republicans. Catherine Cortez Masto, the nation’s first Latina senator, won reelection by a mere 7,928 votes, out of a total of more than a million cast. It was her winning margin of 8,615 in Washoe County, home to Reno, that put her over the top.

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Helen Benedict, The Increasing Persecution of Refugees

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There’s a reason — beyond all the obvious ones — that we should be more focused on refugees. Sadly enough, as journalist, novelist, and Columbia University Professor Helen Benedict makes clear in her first TomDispatch piece, such reasons are already anything but lacking. In fact, from the start, refugees in flight proved to be pure gold for Donald Trump and what became the Trumpublican Party. From the moment he first rode down Trump Tower’s golden escalator to declare to a crowd, many of whom his campaign had hired, that he was running for president, he was already smearing desperate refugees at our borders. (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”) And he would never stop smearing people in wrenching flight from their homes as “animals” and their existence here as “American carnage.”

Sadly enough, this may be Donald Trump’s world, since, in the years to come, as this planet broils, ever more of humanity will be all too literally driven from their homes, like Pakistanis last July when one-third of their country was flooded. Brutal storms, staggering heat, you name it and it’s going to turn ever more of us into refugees.  In fact, millions of people globally are already being displaced and, by 2050, it’s estimated that 1.2 billion human beings — yes, you read that right! — could become climate refugees.

As it happens, so many of us in this country are only here because our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-great-grandparents fled nightmares in other countries. My own grandfather arrived here in the 1890s at age 16, alone, in the steerage of a ship, with the equivalent of 50 cents in his pocket. With that in mind, this seems like an all-too-reasonable moment to ignore the Trumpublicans and try to give a little thought to just how badly refugees are being treated globally — if, that is, they aren’t Ukrainians.

So, my suggestion: join Benedict, who’s been covering the global refugee crisis for years, including those fleeing from our all-American wars of this century. Most recently, she’s been reporting from Greece, where she met Syrian writer and refugee Eyad Awwadawnan. The two of them wrote the just-published book, Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece, about how refugees are being abused not only there, but all over the West. Today, she considers how differently Europe and the United States have been treating white, Christian Ukrainian refugees than those from anywhere else. If, to steal a phrase from President Joe Biden, how we deal with refugees reflects “who we are and who we want to be,” then, as Benedict makes clear, we need to do a whole lot better and — given the planet we’re on — soon. Tom

Unequal Mercy

The West’s Approach to Refugees

Almost anyone would agree that war is horrifying and peaceful countries should do their best to help its victims. The widespread eagerness to welcome fleeing Ukrainians after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded their country last February is a heartening example of such aid. But behind that altruism lies an ugly truth: most of the countries embracing Ukrainians are simultaneously persecuting equally desperate refugees from elsewhere.

Such unequal mercy would be no surprise from nations like Ukraine's neighbors Hungary and Poland, controlled by nationalist parties that have rarely welcomed anyone not white and Christian. However, the same thing is happening in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and here in the United States, the very democracies sworn to protect those fleeing war and persecution and that, in the case of America, sometimes turned those people into refugees in the first place. Our Global War on Terror alone has displaced an estimated 37 million people since we invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

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