Conspicuously Absent: Where is America's Heart? | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Conspicuously Absent: Where is America's Heart? 

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Recently, an airliner with 143 people aboard did a trampoline landing in Jacksonville, Fla., and ended up taking an impromptu bath in the St. Johns River. The incident was a sad reminder of the ongoing, illegal incarcerations our government continues to inflict just 90 miles from U.S. soil.

You're thinking, "What's the connection?" Most likely the result of inclement weather and pilot error, the Boeing 737-800 mishap ended with only a few minor injuries—just bumps and bruises instead of body bags. The Miami Air International flight, a charter company that contracts to the U.S. government, was on its usual twice-a-week shuttle, taking off from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and ferrying military personnel, their families, and civilian contractors to Jacksonville Naval Air Station and the naval air station in Norfolk, Va.

Despite its fortunate outcome, this event was yet another reminder of the ongoing human rights violations at Guantanamo Bay's prison for the past 17 years. Former President Barack Obama moved in 2008 to shut down the facility—best known for the inhumane interrogations conducted there in the name of homeland security. His executive order intended to end the era when America abandoned, out of fear, its commitment to decency, due process and human rights.

I realize that Guantanamo isn't a simple matter. Proponents fear it's one of only a few places where suspected—or confirmed—terrorists can be safely cloistered. Discussions have always ended up with the same quandary: Is there any facility where such prisoners can be safe—safe from attempts by al-Qaida operatives to spring the prisoners, as well as safety for those who fear more instances of domestic terrorism? The biggest question of all: Where can the U.S. escape the scrutiny of international and U.S. laws that dictate the legal and humane treatment of prisoners?

Guantanamo is the super-Alcatraz of modern prisons. It is surrounded by miles of sea teeming with sharks, and borders a Communist nation that apprehends those who wish to either depart or arrive illegally. No one has ever escaped from this highly classified facility, which, at its peak, housed more than 700 suspected terrorists. Those still incarcerated there seem to have little hope of being afforded their most basic legal rights, something all Americans consider inalienable. Many of the original 700 have died there, and as the prison's population ages, provisions are being considered for making it more elder-friendly. (That's a head-scratcher; after so many years, why should our government consider kindness now?)

Forty "detainees" are still there. Most have never even been charged with a crime. The reality is that Guantanamo is run by our country but is totally un-American. Draconian interrogations can be done in secrecy, and the Pentagon is directly involved. Take the case of Majid Khan who admitted he had been a courier for al-Qaida. Imprisoned in 2003, he was held incommunicado for the first three years. His confessed "crime" is no slam-dunk, and there's little question that he was brutally tortured before confessing.

His torture was revealed at Khan's first court appearance in 2012. His descriptions were too terrible to be fiction. By his own account, he was hung naked from a beam for three days without food, kept for months at a time in total darkness, and submerged, while hooded and shackled, in a tub of ice and water. Obama confronted the inhumanity and ordered the closure of Guantanamo. But, consistent with President Donald Trump's Islama-xeno-phobic mindset and his avowed commitment to undoing everything from the previous administration, he reversed Obama's order.

During his second year of detention, Khan went on a hunger strike. It was met with a CIA-approved plan to enforce dietary nourishment. A mixture of pasta, sauce, nuts, raisins, and hummus was forcibly infused through his rectum, something now labeled by his defense attorneys as rape. It is certainly not considered to be a medically sound treatment. The list goes on. Much of the evidence used in continuing the detainment of Guantanamo prisoners was proffered only under torture, so none of it could ever pass the litmus-test of our legal system's evidentiary standard.

Owing, at least in part, to the cries of human rights groups, detainees are no longer held incommunicado and are allowed legal representation. But the damage has been done. "The defense lawyers have to have the tools with which to perform their duty, especially in capital cases. No question ... somebody should have thought about that before they started torturing these people," Eugene R. Fidell, a military law specialist at Yale Law School, says. Fidell added, "This was an accident waiting to happen. The only thing that surprises me is this is 2019 and the problem remains unresolved."

Today, Guantanamo exists for only one reason: Trump has chosen, as he always does, the moral low-ground, insisting on keeping Guantanamo open.

Every American should be outraged, and it's certainly worth a call to your congressional leadership. Although it grew out of post-9/11 fear, in a very real context, the ongoing horrors of Guantanamo are a window into America's heart, and, particularly, into the heartlessness of its president.

The author is a former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and one mongrel dog. Send feedback to

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