Thinking about the moral ambiguities associated with the activities at Guantanamo, we usually concentrate on how prisoners are treated or the legal procedures employed for processing prisoners.
More often than not, our conversations dwell on what is known as “torture lite:” simulated drowning, sensory deprivation, intimidation through the use of guard dogs or sexual abuse.
Or we focus on the moral legalities of holding prisoners indefinitely, without being charged, without a trial or without the right to examine any evidence being used to justify detention.
A case can be made that the treatment of and procedures concerning prisoners are morally indefensible, but I believe that these actions are the consequences of more foundational moral travesties.
Those who desire a clear moral response to the activities taking place at Guantanamo should examine more deeply the question of why we have terrorists in the first place. I begin with three concerns.
The first pertains to how we acquired the base in the first place. Discerning the moral issues surrounding the United States’ historical entry into empire-building, we can begin to understand why an empire needs a military base at Guantanamo. We begin by asking, what exactly are we doing in Cuba?
During Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, the U.S. unilaterally entered into the conflict with the expressed goal of acquiring Spain’s colonial possessions–not just Cuba, but also Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.
Occupying Cuba, The U.S. entered into its first venture of “nation-building.” Our military refused to depart from the island until the U.S.-appointed government agreed to supplant Cuba’s sovereignty to U.S. interests.
These first acts, which Teddy Roosevelt would eventually refer to as “speaking softly but carrying a big stick,” or “gunboat diplomacy,” established a model for how we have interacted with the rest of the world throughout the past century–a model that has recently been accelerated by the current administration’s neoconservative ideology.
What began as a military approach of forcing our will on weaker nations in Latin America later developed into forcing our will on weaker nations throughout the world through economic means, and, when that failed, clandestine operations.
We have prisoners at Guantanamo because the means by which we obtained that base has become a normalized and legitimized method for dealing with the rest of the world.
A second concern is related to the first, specifically our refusal to universalize our moral actions.
Multiple versions of what Christians call the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you,” exist within a multitude of faith traditions. In short, an action taken against another could be considered immoral if we would not want that same action taken against us. Yet this is exactly how the U.S. has acted in its relationships with other nations.
We stockpile weapons of mass destruction, but no one else can. Soldiers who physically or psychologically abuse our soldiers can be brought for judgment before the World Court, but our soldiers are excused from such oversight. We maintain military bases on foreign soil, but no nation can maintain a base within the U.S.
In short, we reserve the right to interrogate prisoners or redefine the Geneva Convention in whatever manner we see fit. But if any other nation dares make a similar claim, we label them a rogue nation and respond immediately.
A telling revelation of how this has become the norm among the American public was demonstrated recently during former president Clinton’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News.
The public and the media concentrated on Clinton’s expression of anger. What everyone ignored was Clinton’s comment, “I authorized the CIA to get a crew together to try to kill [Bin Laden].”
Can a foreign nation discuss the political assassination of a U.S. leader or civilian without consequences? If not, on what moral authority can the U.S.? Should not our response to the Cole bombing have been to bring the perpetrators to trial, rather than have the executive branch attempt to assassinate them? Why do the moral imperatives that reject political assassination apply to other nations but not the U.S.?
These questions lead a third reflection: that we reserve for ourselves the right to participate in actions, some of which can be deemed immoral, because we claim for ourselves moral superiority–a moral superiority defined through the negation of the present occupants at Guantanamo.
In short, we are what they are not. They are terrorists. They cannot be reasoned with. They are inhuman in their actions.
We are civilized. We are rational. We are humane, make mistakes or participate in poor judgment, but our actions will never be perceived as immoral because we are who we are.
Forming a moral dichotomy between an absolute good (us) and absolute evil (them) creates a reality where moral discernment is trumped by a self-induced delusion of the goodness of our character. This delusion is maintained through the dehumanization of the Guantanamo prisoners.
And now, even asking the question as to how our global actions can lead some to resort to terrorism or if legitimate concerns now exist that force some to take such a radical approach, is to raise the ire of our political leaders, who would incredulously dismisses such analyses as providing comfort to the enemy.
In order to preserve The Good, defined through the privilege of those who get to define The Good, the very acts of torture against those who are marginalized by the imposition of The Good, have the danger of being immoral. A people are more likely to engage in acts against humanity when they demonize their opponents to justify actions taken against these opponents as necessary evils in order to protect The Good.
Ironically, it is in the defense of this type of Good, that the nation comes closest to losing its soul.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.