The injustices of Guantánamo

The injustices of Guantánamo

In August 1944, Private First Class Louis Cooperberg, a US Army medic, wrote to his sister Eleanor in Brooklyn about his experience treating wounded Nazi soldiers on the front line. “I give them the same care, the same treatment I give our own boys,” Private Cooperberg wrote. “Yet all the while, I know these same men have killed my cousins and aunts and uncles in Poland, have tortured and killed without compunction, and despise me because I am a Jew. But I treat them.”

Jews under Nazi occupation were still being hunted down and murdered, yet Private Cooperberg ministered to all those in his care as equals. This ethos reflects the very best of American values: recognizing the humanity in everyone, even our enemies, and treating those in our custody with dignity and respect.

It’s worth reflecting on this ethos now 20 years after September 11, 2001, one of the darkest days in America’s history. Like Private Cooperberg, many Americans shone brightly after that darkness, unifying against horrendous acts of evil by coming together in ways that affirmed what their country stands for and, just as important, what it stands against.

But after 9/11, many others turned away from those values. Around the globe, American agents arrested men on thin allegations of terrorist activity, and secreted them away to clandestine black sites for years of torture or – to use the legally approved euphemism – enhanced interrogation. Many of those arrested eventually made their way to the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which was established in January 2002.

American leaders have all too often excused moral departures at these black sites, and in the prison at Guantánamo, as an end justifying the means. But even if one was to set aside the immorality or illegality of the means, the ends have proved both ineffective and counterproductive, pushing this country ever further down a path of forever war and incalculable loss.

And, as underscored at a recent hearing in Guantánamo, we cannot ignore the immorality. At that hearing, a Pakistani man named Majid Khan, who went to high school in suburban Maryland, described the brutal beatings, forced sodomy, and other inhumane treatment he said he had received from interrogators: Tubes covered in hot sauce before being inserted in his nasal cavities. Repeated simulated drownings. Garden hoses forcibly inserted into his rectum.

After hearing Mr Khan, a jury of senior military officers condemned their government’s behavior. The handling of detainees, they wrote in a letter to the court, was a “stain on the moral fiber of America” and “should be a source of shame for the US government.” They acknowledged Mr Khan’s misdeeds as a low-level operative for Al Qaeda but found our treatment of him was akin to the “torture performed by the most abusive regimes in modern history.”

Compare this horror with the grace of Private Cooperberg, who healed those who believed, he wrote, that he had “no right to breathe the same air as the rest of the world.” It would have been understandable had he avoided treating wounded Nazis. Instead he saved their lives.

As a Jewish American military attorney assigned to defend some of the men we have kept in Guantánamo, I feel a strong kinship with Private Cooperberg. After all, many of the individuals I represent are alleged to have been part of Al Qaeda, an organization dedicated to attacking America and Jews.

My clients have not expressed antisemitism or hatred toward me. My primary client is alleged to have been tangentially involved with an attack in Indonesia, yet he was brutally tortured and has been in prison for nearly two decades. My colleagues and I assist these men not because we support the crimes they are alleged to have committed, but because we believe that our country should hold itself to the highest standard of basic decency and human rights.

I am duty bound to defend my clients, a mission that my country and its Constitution demand. Likewise, as a Jew, I was taught the core value of seeing humanity in all people – even enemies. And as an American, I was taught that everyone has certain unalienable rights, and that the protections of fair trials, due process and a prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment apply regardless of the alleged crimes.

Those who seek to abrogate these rights, who take shortcuts, who bow to near-term political or ideological expediency, forget the basic tenets of what the United States stands for, what once made it a beacon of light for those struggling around the world.

Private Cooperberg’s letter warned that the true enemy is “any people who proclaim themselves better than all other peoples, and then set out to prove it by murder and trickery and by the stupidity of those who never bothered to reason for themselves.”

Americans are presented with the choice of what our moral role in the world should be. We can pick a path of turpitude and compromise, choosing amoral, shortsighted means of attacking those who seek to harm us. But such choices erode our relationships abroad, and weaken our moral core at home. Or, we can choose to illuminate the many darknesses of the world with the power of our example, and reclaim the grace and humanity we find in the best efforts of the Americans who have come before us.

If Americans are going to choose the latter path, we must acknowledge our mistakes, and show we can learn from them. What has happened at Guantánamo is an example of one such error. Twenty years on, it is time for us to choose how, or if, we can repair the damage. But I think I know what Private Cooperberg would have us do.

Lieutenant Commander Aaron J. Shepard, Judge Advocate General’s Corps, United States Navy, is a military officer and attorney. He currently serves as a managing defense counsel with the Military Commissions Defense Organization. The views expressed do not reflect those of the Defense Department, the US government or any of its agencies. Send comments to [email protected].

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