The 30th Annual Sundance Film Festival concluded on January 26th. As a film industry outsider, what was supposed to be a light-hearted divertissement for me took a turn for the thought-provoking upon watching the film, Camp X-Ray. In introducing the film, the director, Peter Sattler, described it to the audience as a film that would not have had the backing of Hollywood studios, but was dependent on forums like Sundance that encourage independent filmmaking.
Camp X-Ray is the story of the budding friendship between a Guantanamo Bay detainee and one of his military guards. As the film progresses, it humanizes a dehumanized detainee by showing him partaking in comedic routines, and expressing anger, sadness and fleeting displays of contentment. One of the most telling scenes is one in which the detainee, Ali, a German citizen or resident -- the filmmakers do not indicate what his legal status in Germany had been -- tells the guard, a young female soldier and first time Guantanamo guard, that he been cleared of all wrongdoing years before, but had not been released because no country would accept him due to the taint of Guantanamo. In essence, even though he had been recognized as having committed no crime and should have been released, he was kept in prison simply because he had been interrogated at Guantanamo.
During the presidential election campaign of 2008, the status of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay was a hot topic with Senator Obama pledging to shut it down if he became President. However, I have to admit that given the imploding economy that we were facing and the impending economic Armageddon predicted with massive job losses, business collapses and a return of Hoovervilles, I was more focused on what the candidates had to say about stabilizing an economy that seemed to be in free fall mode and preventing a return of the Great Depression. I also figured that all the detainees must have been terrorists and we were better able to live our lives without fear if they were behind bars.
The Obama administration, facing monthly job loss numbers of over 700,000 in the first quarter of 2009, a skyrocketing unemployment rate and billions of dollars lost on the stock market every week, rightly saw tackling the financial crisis as a day one priority, but it kept the issue of Guantanamo in view as was evidenced by a presidential order to close of the detention center. Also, in a widely criticized move, the Obama administration, in 2009, sought to try the 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a civilian court in New York City. The huge uproar that followed made the administration reconsider its stance and instead decide to continue with the Bush administration's policy of conducting military tribunals at Guantanamo. In order to ensure that it would be difficult for any Guantanamo detainee to set foot on US soil, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and also made it harder for detainees cleared for release to in fact be released.
Five years into the Obama administration, the Guantanamo prison is still in operation. Some of the detainees have been held for over 12 years with no charges levied against them and no end to their pre-charge incarceration, while others have been cleared for release from Guantanamo, but are still in the detention center. Acknowledging the blotch of Guantanamo on the reputation of the nation, President Obama declared last year that the detention center "has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."
The ongoing saga of Guantanamo and the upcoming trial of some of the detainees, a trial which has been compared to the Nuremberg trials, will certainly be a test of whether this great nation, stunned by the injury of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, would, in this case, "stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law." But, perhaps we have already failed this test given the Bush administration's clothing its use of enhanced interrogation techniques with an air of legality with the now infamous legal memos from Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee. Perhaps we have already failed this test by the fact that the detainees have been held for so many years without charge. Over 12 years post the Pearl Harbor of this generation, the fate of the Guantanamo detainees remains uncertain. However, with (i) the trial of the five 9/11 co-conspirators in Guantanamo possibly beginning in September 2014, (ii) the recent reauthorization of the NDAA which eases some restrictions on detainee transfers, and (iii) President Obama, in his 2014 State of the Union address, declaring that 2014 should be the year that Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and closes the Guantanamo prison camp, the legal and moral quagmire that is Guantanamo may finally be relegated to history.