Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a particular narrative has dominated the American consciousness. It goes like this: Terrorists are unconditionally committed to a religious ideology that requires them to kill “infidels” without any regard for their own lives or any effort toward reconciliation; therefore, there is but one realistic option for the United States as it relates to such persons: permanent incapacitation through killing or detention. This narrative seeks to rationalize a perpetual war against terrorism and keeps places like Guantánamo and the detention facility at Bagram Air Base open. I reject it, however, and its conclusion that the United States must continue its war and detention policies.
Rejecting the legitimacy of such an outlook, I pray for the grace to live the Christian alternative faithfully: love of one’s enemies. Jesus commanded his followers to “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:43-44). He did not instruct them to kill their enemies or detain them indefinitely. Since each enemy is a human being, there is always hope for relationship and dialogue, redemption and transformation.
Since 2002 the United States has detained about 800 men at Guantánamo and about 3,000 men and women at the Bagram base. The U.S. government has reported to the United Nations that about 100 of these detainees have been juveniles as young as 13 years of age.
Concerning these detentions, the Bush and Obama administrations have made substantially the same claim: Since the nation is fighting a war, the law allows the executive to indefinitely detain those declared to be “an unlawful enemy combatant” without ever charging them with a crime or giving them due process in a court of law. As long as military authorities determine that a person either constitutes a threat to national security or possesses valuable intelligence about terrorist activities, detention may continue indefinitely.
In large part, U.S. courts have accepted the argument that in wartime it is legal for the executive to use indefinite detention. Guantánamo and Bagram remain open for business. While the number of people held has been reduced in the last year-and-a-half, currently almost 1,000 men are detained in these two facilities.
The Bush and Obama administrations have also claimed that there should be no independent judicial oversight of these detentions, that in wartime military authorities, not the courts, determine whether a person has been accurately classified as an enemy combatant. But at least in regard to those detained in Guantá-namo, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected that claim.
In a historic case, Boumediene v. Bush (2008), the court ruled that Guantánamo detainees possess a constitutional right to have their detentions reviewed in U.S. federal courts.
The Obama administration has opposed extending habeas corpus to Bagram detainees, however, even when detainees were initially captured outside Afghanistan and later transferred to an “active theater of war.” In April 2009 a U.S. district judge rejected the administration’s argument, but in May 2010 a federal appeals court overturned the district court ruling. Now it is up to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether to hear the case.
The Guantánamo Detainees
According to the prevailing U.S. view of who the enemy is, permanent incapacitation through killing or detention appears a plausible or even necessary response. If the enemy is irredeemably evil, he or she cannot and will not change. If the United States sets them free, they will inevitably “return to the battlefield” to kill more Americans.
Civilian leaders have continually reinforced this narrative. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly characterized the detainees as the “worst of the worst” terrorists in the world, captured on the battlefield fighting U.S. soldiers. The available evidence does not support these accusations.
Since 2008, when federal courts finally began to review detentions at Guantánamo, judges have concluded that in 36 of 50 cases the executive branch failed to provide sufficient evidence to support its claim that the detainee in question is an “enemy combatant” who can be lawfully detained for an indefinite amount of time. In nearly 75 percent of cases, the courts ruled the detention unlawful and ordered the detainee released.
In May, President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force finally released its review of detainee cases and recommendations for disposition. The report admits that only 10 percent of the 240 detainees (when Obama came into office) had a “direct role in plotting, executing, or facilitating” terrorist acts. A majority of the detainees, the task force reports, were “low-level foreign fighters” who “lacked a significant leadership or other specialized role” in a terrorist organization. (Note: these classifications reflect the task force’s own investigation, not the assessment of an independent court that has objectively scrutinized the available evidence in each case.)
Not only have the Guantánamo detainees been wrongly characterized as the “worst of the worst” terrorists in the world, but they have been consistently dehumanized by Rush Limbaugh and others who have called them “human debris” and “bottom-of- the-barrel dregs.” Whatever the accusations against the Guantánamo detainees, however, they retain their inherent dignity and basic rights as human beings. These men are fathers, sons, uncles and brothers.
Living the Gospel
As I learn more about the Guantánamo detainees, I have experienced a deep desire to enter into relationship with them. These days I am less interested in collecting information from legal briefs and newspaper articles. Instead, I want to meet these men, shake their hands, engage in dialogue and imagine a new way forward. I want to be a brother to them. I want to be a faithful companion of Jesus, who invited his followers to love their enemies. I want to sit down with Guantánamo detainees and learn their stories, to ask: Where did you grow up? What did you do as a child? What did you dream of? What formed you and shaped you as an adolescent? What is important to you now? What are your values?
If the person is one of the few Guantánamo detainees who is a committed member of Al Qaeda, I want to hear his reasons for joining the terrorist organization. I want to ask: “What motivates you? What are your grievances against us?” I want to learn what has compelled him to resort to violence.
He might ask similar questions of me: “Why does the United States wage war against Muslims? Why invest $800 billion in soldiers and weapons each year? Why resort to violence in an attempt to solve the world’s problems?”
Such a relationship might seem far-fetched were it not for the prophetic witness of communities and individuals who have creatively incarnated Jesus’ love for enemies. Here are three:
• The Witness Against Torture community, founded by Catholic Workers and friends, made a pilgrimage to Guantánamo in 2005 to perform a corporal work of mercy: visiting the imprisoned (Mt 25:36). Even though the pilgrims were stopped at a military checkpoint outside the U.S. Naval Base and prohibited from going any farther, they were able to hold a 24-hour fast and vigil near the barbed-wire fence as an act of solidarity with the prisoners, who were informed that the vigil was taking place.
• Marc Falkoff, a professor of law at Northern Illinois University and an attorney for 17 Guantánamo prisoners, edited Poems From Guantánamo: the Detainees Speak (Univ. Iowa Press, 2007). The collection presents the voices of detainees, who share their experiences of darkness and light, despair and hope.
• Brandon Neely, a former guard at Guantánamo, traveled to London in December 2009 to meet with two former Guantánamo detainees. During the meeting, he expressed regret and sorrow for his complicity in their suffering.
Prophetic acts entail risk. Will it be possible to build trust between so-called enemies? Will Americans who seek reconciliation be labeled “terrorist sympathizers”?
I think Jesus would understand such a loss of good repute. For touching lepers and talking with Samaritans, Jesus was declared unclean. For dining with sinners, Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus took this risk and entered into these relationships because he believed that redemption is possible for all people. In doing so, Jesus provides a counter-narrative to the dominant belief that perpetual war and indefinite detention are the regrettable, yet inevitable responses to alleged terrorism. He showed us another way, the way of love.
Listen to an interview with Luke Hansen, S.J.