Crimes Against Humanity are Very American

Topic: Esperanza Spalding – We Are America

Esperanza Spalding – We Are America from ESP Media on Vimeo.

EH: While I appreciate this contribution to the long-running effort in closing Guantanamo, the overlaid quotes in the video begs the question: do we really need to pander to power by showing Obama, McCain, Powell as somehow concerned about freedom and dignity? More importantly, calling indefinite detention and unfair trial “un-American” revises several decades of American oppression at home and abroad.

XB: I just watched this video again and I noticed some more things worth commenting on. In addition to the use of the term “un-American” it’s also worth investigating the substance of the quotes used in this video. Obama opposes Guantanamo because it’s a “symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law” (interesting how he singles this out as ‘the symbol’ considering the innumerable other symbols from drone strikes to worldwide torture programs.) Admiral Mullen criticized the prison by saying “from the standpoint of how it reflects on us … it’s been pretty damaging.” Colin Powell criticized the prison because “it’s causing us far more damage than any good we can get from it.” You may have noticed a common characteristic in these three quotes. All three of them criticize the existence of Guantanamo because it represents too much of a cost to us (not the prisoners being tortured). This is about as morally sensible as Obama’s characterization of the Iraq war as “dumb” or criticisms of the mass murders in Vietnam as too costly to the US.

This pragmatic opposition to savagery reemerges later in the video on the posters describing the torture prison as “counterproductive.” Suppose Bashar Assad began criticizing the torture programs he runs because he felt it was “causing [him] more damage than any good” he could get from it. I’m sure we’d find it appalling. Incidentally, it’s pretty revealing that Powell thinks of kidnapping, illegal imprisonment and torture as practices where it’s conceivable to achieve a “good” outcome.

Also, near the end of the video Janelle Monae holds up a poster that reads “Congress: Support President Obama in Closing Guantanamo.” This reinforces the notion that Obama genuinely wants to close the prison, a notion that can be challenged by thorough reports from Kevin Gosztola. He cites a WSJ article that shows Obama resumed military tribunals at Guantanamo. He also cites the recommendations of Human Rights First (an organization featured at the end of this video) that Obama could have appointed a high level White House official to “ensure timely and effective implementation” of detainee transfers. Obama didn’t do this.

Carlos Warner, an attorney who is representing 11 Guantanamo prisoners, said on DN! that Obama could have transferred the prisoners to “rehabilitation centers in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, built under the eye of the United States,” adding “the 86 men could go in an instant, if the president had political will to transfer them.” He also said “Unfortunately, they’re held because the president has no political will to end Guantánamo,” and “the State Department knows where these men can be placed. And they were working on those solutions, but the president doesn’t want to implement what the State Department has done.”

Now, with this mass of information suggesting that Obama is unwilling to close Guantanamo Bay or at least views its existence as not demanding the level urgency that normally accompanies the crimes of others, how does one come to formulate a statement like “support Obama in closing Guantanamo”? Shouldn’t this say “demand Obama close Guantanamo” or “force Obama to close Guantanamo.” This willingness to look upon the President as this benevolent being who is yearning to do the right thing and only needs our “support” is a deeply undemocratic way of thinking about the relationship between the public and power centers. It’s like Edward Snowden said, we are supposed to be the boss of the power factions in Washington. We can only “support Obama in closing Guantanamo” in the same way we can “support” him in ending drone strikes (in other words, not at all). I share your appreciation of the video as a contribution to a much-needed conversation but it’s hard not to notice these deeply seated illusions.


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