On the 10th Anniversary of Guantanamo, Revisiting the Meaning of Torture


When the first 20 detainees stepped through the gates of Guantanamo Bay Detention Center on January 11, 2002, they did not fully understand the meaning and complexity of their incarcerations.

January 22, 2009 was to be the first meaningful “change” brought by the new Obama administration. On that day Obama signed his very first executive order as president: to close Guantanamo.

Over the past 10 years, Guantanamo Bay has held some 775 prisoners accused of having links to terrorist organizations. Many have since been repatriated, and ten have faced military or civilian trials. It is estimated that about 170 prisoners remain locked up with slow or nonexistent judicial procedure.

Unfortunately, because of tactics employed under the Bush administration, Guantanamo has become synonymous for torture, a fact exacerbated by the haunting April 2009 Justice Department memos, which describe CIA-authorized torture treatment in detail. Legally, torture means “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” as defined by the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), ratified by the U.S. in 1977 and 1990, respectively.

To the patients at the Association Médicale de Réhabilition des Victimes de la Torture (AMRVT) in Casablanca, Morocco, where I worked with victims including a 24-year-old former Guantanamo detainee, torture means watching the minutes slip by without a glimmer of justice. It means being subjected to excessive force, psychological distress, and isolation. To other victims, it means more grotesque abuses including waterboarding, sexual abuse (particularly for women), sleep deprivation, threats and verbal abuse.

To many officials fighting the “War on Terror," however, torture means obtaining essential information from individuals who threaten the security of our nation. It means potentially protecting citizens from another 9/11, perpetrated by those who are certainly not acting as “lawful combatants” under the Geneva Conventions' definition.

But, what should torture mean to Americans?

First, even if we are dealing with the ambiguous threat of terrorism, our international obligations prevent us from ever using torture in response. Article 2 of the CAT clearly states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Also, beyond the long-term physical and psychological trauma associated with torture (on victims and perpetrators alike), studies such as the January 7, 2011, Science Journal report show torture to be an ineffective method of extracting reliable information. Wounded and sleep-deprived torture victims are less likely to remember information accurately, and provide less detailed information. Detainees under duress are more likely to tell their interrogators whatever they want to hear in order to stop torture.

In addition, torture actually hinders due process. In the first civilian trial of a suspected terrorist, Ahmed Ghailani, the defendant was acquitted of all but one of 285 charges for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in east Africa because much of the information in his case was obtained by torture, and therefore unreliable. Ghailani’s case sets the precedence for all other trials of 9/11 conspirators, which may be doomed before they begin – poisoned by torture.

Finally, Americans only need to reach as far back in our collective memory as the Abu Ghraib scandal to know that torture only hurts our international reputation, particularly our human rights record. Amnesty International’s February 2008 report on the U.S. use of torture states, “the administration’s resort to torture to fill in the intelligence gap leaves it today with a credibility gap.”

For these reasons, it is critical that President Obama not allow Congress to stonewall the process of closing Guantanamo. Permanent homes must be expediently found for the remaining Guantanamo detainees. In December 2009, Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum announcing that Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois would be receiving prisoners from Guantanamo. Countries including Portugal, France, Ireland, and Palau have agreed to accept some prisoners, but other governments have been reluctant to repatriate them. 

However, last month the House blocked a bill to appropriate funds to move detainees to American soil. Though the White House criticized this decision, Obama signed it without a fight, in effect grinding the closing of Guantanamo to a halt.

In addition, the U.S. must take an active role in healing torture victims. The UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture (to which the U.S. is not currently a donor) supports over 100 local organizations like the AMRVT which do the most effective and pragmatic work of healing around the world.

This healing is essential, as a 2008 National Institute of Justice study reports, because many who go on to commit acts of terror became radicalized while in detention. Logically, the worse the treatment, the greater the will for retribution. Healing individuals develops broken societies, and healthy societies can combat more systemic problems, including underdevelopment, mistrust of authority, and radicalism.

To Americans, torture means that we should not let these January anniversaries pass us by, as forgotten as our own victims.

Photo CreditThe National Guard