It could happen to you: why we must stop indefinite detention

Last Saturday, two accounts from former Guantanamo detainees came out in the New York Times, one after five years, the other seven. They are horrifying stories, in which these two innocent men are detained for little reason, interrogated, beaten and tortured.

Although Obama banned waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques shortly after he assumed office in 2009, not only has indefinite detention remained in force for non-citizens—Obama signed its extension to American citizens into law. (I agree that the law should apply equally to citizens and non-citizens—God didn’t grant more “God-given rights” to Americans than to everyone else—but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.)

Although I feel that compassion alone should be enough for us to act against indefinite detention (and it is for some, as evinced in the many protests against Guantanamo over the years), unfortunately, it’s clearly not typically strong enough a motivator for most people, or Guantanamo would have been closed long ago. It’s only human; we’re wired to act primarily in our own best interests. We may feel that what’s happening in Guantanamo is unfortunate, but we’re not going to take a day off work to go to a protest against it or call our representatives; that would be boring/pointless/a pain in the ass. Others actually support indefinite detention (and even “enhanced interrogation”) as an unfortunate necessity in the war against terrorism. As disparate as the ideals of these two camps are, they have something in common: they are not taking seriously the real possibility that it could happen to them.

“No, no,” you might think. “I’m not even close to being suspected of being a terrorist. I’m white, after all, and an upstanding pillar of the community.”

John Walker Lindh was white. So was Timothy McVeigh. Racial profiling is, of course, going on in terrorist investigations, but don’t think that just because you’re white, you get a free pass.

Moreover, the definition of terrorism is expanding. Under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, the label of “terrorism” was expanded not just to animal activists who blow up laboratories, but even to those who merely sneak into places to videotape abused animals.

“So this is just a concern for crazy, tree-hugging lefties, then,” you say. “I would never be in an animal rights group, so what do I care?” Well, how easy would it be to expand this to pro-life groups? They’ve blown up abortion clinics before; what’s to stop the government from calling any non-violent civil disobedience they may participate in terrorism, too? The AETA sets a dangerous precedent: now the government can declare your group a terrorist organization (or, even if they don’t use that exact word, to apply the same laws to you). Why would we want to leave the system open to that possibility?

“But I’m completely politically apathetic!” you say. “I’m sure I’ll never be involved in any political organization!” Well, that’s another problem entirely. Moreover, as the accounts from the former Guantanamo prisoners make clear, it takes precious little to arouse their suspicion, so even you are not safe.

Is this fear-mongering? In a way, yes, but only to the extent one would engage in while negotiating a contract. You don’t draft a contract with the assumption that the other party will always do right by you. You have to take into account every possible way they could screw you over and make all the necessary precautions. The making of laws is no different. The risk of not doing so—such as your losing years of your life for absolutely no reason—is too great.

What might the necessary precautions be in this case? Maybe we need to call for the elimination of the entire Suspension Clause (which allows the writ of habeas corpus to be suspended “when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it”). Or maybe we just need stricter definitions of all the terms of the Suspension Clause so that Congress cannot take advantage of it by saying that the threat of terrorism is never-ending, thereby putting habeas corpus itself into indefinite detainment.

Unfortunately, even a threat to oneself is often not enough to motivate people into action against it. That is, after all, why many people don’t save for retirement or prepare for natural disasters (or fight climate change). It’s another unfortunate quirk of human nature; we’re primarily wired to “live in the moment.” The whole “frog in slowly heated water” or “First they came for the Jews, but I did nothing” thing has become so familiar it’s practically lost all meaning.

However, luckily, we also have a certain amount of logic to supplement or, in some cases, counter our natural drives, and we have the laws and retirement funds to prove it. We must take action—and I don’t mean signing an internet petition; I mean calling your representatives or protesting in the streets—to give the prisoners of Guantanamo a fair trial, reverse NDAA and AETA and even write new legislation to ensure that such things can never happen again.


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