Civil Liberties

Guantanamo Detainees Protest Their Condition but Pentagon Claims That They're Just Big Sports Fans

Of course the Guantanamo protests will never rise to the scale of Egypt’s, but for detainees held indefinitely, these smaller protests emerge incredibly significant.

In a recent interview with Guantanamo reporter Carol Rosenberg, Col. Thomas, a Joint Detention Group Commander at Guantanamo Bay, has stated that Guantanamo Bay detainees are not, in fact, engaged in protests. His claims emerge in response to a joint press release issued by by the Center for Constitutional Rights and CUNY Law School on Jan 27th. In that report, lawyers in conversation with their clients at GTMO confirmed that detainees had, in light of the protests taking place across the Middle East, been staging sit-ins protesting their ongoing indefinite detention at the GTMO.

But according to Col. Thomas, detainees are neither holding sit-ins, nor particularly moved by the events unfolding across the Middle East. Instead, Col. Thomas -- in an attempt to “set the record straight” -- tells us that detainees are actuallyfar more engrossed in following soccer tournaments. I suppose it’s no coincidence that in presenting this as the ‘real’ state of affairs, Guantanamo Bay gets fashioned as an entertainment-complex, the kind of place where violations of the law could not possibly be occurring.

Col. Thomas’ statements are not only remarkably pithy, but also remarkably incoherent: “Of course they’re aware of what’s going on in Egypt, but, no, they are not participating in the unrest that is going on in those countries.” “Signs that go up from time to time in the cell blocks are focused on “discontent” -- not the faraway protests.” “We deal with detainee complaints every day. It’s not related to anything that’s going on in any way in Egypt or Tunisia.”

What are we to make of these statements? Nowhere in the reports by lawyers, or in the press release issued by CUNY Law and the Center for Constitutional Rights, is the claim being made that detainees were protesting against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia’s Ben Ali, and yet each and every one of Thomas’ statements appears to be in response to this non-existent claim. A sneaky maneuver, no doubt, that enables Thomas to evade the accusation of lying, even if the ‘truth’ being told pertains to matters that no-one is contesting.

What CCR and CUNY’s joint press release does suggest, and what Col. Thomas does not address, is the fact that detainees have been following the events unfolding in Middle East, and that their own sit-ins were ‘inspired’ by events abroad. While it is true that the statements of detainees, and the signs they are reported to have made, express discontent, this discontent should be interpreted not -- as Col. Thomas would have us believe -- as an unremarkable everyday occurrence, but as a direct response to the U.S. administration’s actions in freezing the transfer of detainees cleared for release, and their ongoing indefinite imprisonment.

To frame the recent protests at GTMO in any other light, is an act of negation or, more strongly, erasure.

In suggesting that detainees’ current protests are not actually protests; that detainees are not actually interested in the political events unfolding in the Middle East; and that their “complaints” are not actually related to those events -- events, no less, taking place in parts of the world that many of them once belonged to -- Col. Thomas’ comments serve the purpose of depriving detainees the right to be recognized as a people who, despite detention, continue to maintain a sense of allegiance to the places they once knew as home. Col. Thomas’ statements attempt to foreclose the possibility of imagining detainees, too, as people who are coming into being in this moment of awakening; the possibility that their efforts might also be read as an act of solidarity with their brothers and sisters rising in response to a shared sense of injustice.

Similarly, when Col. Thomas suggests that the ‘discontent’ at Guantanamo is unrelated to events in, as he puts it, “those” places, the purpose of this statement appears to be entirely political. What would it mean, after all, for the U.S. administration to recognize what detainees are pointing to: the irony that their experience as the subjects of a democratic nation like the United States might be likened with the experience of those living under the undemocratic rule of leaders like Hosni Mubarak. Given the implications of this analogy, the protests must be reconfigured such that they emerge as nothing more than an everyday incident. The U.S. administration cannot afford to recognize itself in signs that read ”Where are the Courts?” , “What About our Rights?”, and “Where is Democracy?”

There is one more thing that should be said in response to Col. Thomas’ remarks, and that is: so what if detainees were watching soccer? According to Col. Thomas,’ an interest in soccer suggests a lack of political consciousness, but this, of course, is a false dichotomy. According to this (il)logical formulation, detainees would onlyreallybe engaging with (or influenced by) the protests if they werefollowing those protests alone. But how many of us have stopped living, or working, or checking game-scores because of the protests taking place in the Arab world?

That’s the thing about human subjectivity; it’s already always divided. So when Col. Thomas sets up these false dichotomies between following protests / following soccer, everyday discontent / protests, events at GITMO / events happening around the world, he’s attempting to sway public opinion via dupery. The Guantanamo protests will never rise to the scale of Egypt’s, but for detainees still being held indefinitely in the little kingdom of Guantanamo, these smaller protests emerge incredibly significant. Let’s not allow Col. Thomas to tell us otherwise.