EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

We Are America: Guantánamo, The Aamer Appeal, and the Passion of Andrés Thomas Conteris

“President Obama, stop the tortuuurrre,” bellowed Andrés Thomas Conteris, as a plastic tube snaked through his nose, down his throat, and into his stomach to deliver a bottle of Ensure nutrients to his starved body. Conteris, months into a grueling fast, voluntarily submitted to the nasogastric feeding in front of the US Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. on October 18, 2013 to underscore the brutality of the continued forced-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantánamo Bay. Throughout the feeding, which simulated what some in Guantánamo endure twice daily, Conteris gagged and wailed. Cameras snapped. Observers winced.

The spectacle inside the courthouse, concluded minutes before, had been in its own way grave. There, the Circuit Court of Appeals had considered oral arguments in a lawsuit contending that forced-feeding at Guantánamo was a violation of human rights and therefore should be stopped. Known as the Aamer Appeal, the case was brought on behalf of Shaker Aamer and others of his Guantánamo brethren. Aamer is the last UK resident held at the prison. Detained since 2002, never charged with a crime, and cleared for release by the US government in 2007 and again in 2009, Aamer is something of a cause célèbre. His fate has inspired global campaigns for his release, studded by aching pleas from his children, one of whom he has never met on account of his imprisonment.

In the chamber, the attorneys and judges debated in rapid-fire legalisms a question with profound meaning for our democracy and our times: whether the right of habeas corpus, affirmed in 2007 for Guantánamo detainees in the Supreme Court’s landmark Boumidiene v Bush decision, could be used to challenge not only the lawfulness of one’s detention but the conditions of detention as well. If such a right did not exist, the attorneys for the Guantánamo plaintiffs argued, there would be no legal basis to challenge any abuse in the prison, no matter how extreme. The doomed men, most of whom are cleared for release, would remain in roughly the same legal black hole to which they were initially condemned by the Bush administration.

* * *

It was a banner day for the good guys, revealing the complexities of the ongoing effort to close Guantánamo. The attorneys had cause to think from the courtroom exchanges that their Hail Mary lawsuit — filed at the height of the mass hunger strike in Guantánamo last summer — continued to do surprisingly well. (Down from more than 100, thirteen remain on hunger strike, all force-fed.) Last July, District Court judge Gladys Kessler concluded that forced-feeding was “painful, degrading, and humiliating,” but that her court had no power to determine if it may continue. But now, a new set of judges in a higher court seemed open to the idea that federal courts could one day do what President Obama has to this point refused: order a stop to the forced-feeding.

I joined several-dozen activists that day at court, people from groups such as Witness Against Torture and Code Pink, to once again confront the machinery of state. Guantánamo, we had long ago concluded, represents a total system failure, prompting our protest at sites of federal power. If our actions could not close the prison, we could at least haunt whatever vestiges of conscience still remained within the US government.

Equally important, we had supported the attorneys, weary from years of mostly fruitless litigation. We often joke that the primary role of the activists is to help keep the lawyers going, who in turn work to keep their clients active in legal fights in which the detainees have understandably lost nearly all faith. Closing the circle, the detained men inspire all of us with their resistance. Through the attorneys (obeying the strictest security requirements), the prisoners have learned of our protests, and they have conveyed thanks that mean more to us than any other aspect of our work.

Conteris — undergoing his fifth public feeding, including in front of the White House and US embassies in Latin America — gained unprecedented recognition of his extraordinary sacrifice by virtue of coverage in syndicated news stories about the day’s events. He is a native of Wisconsin, though his mother’s family is from Uruguay. There, his aunt and uncle were tortured by the US-backed dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. In English and Spanish, Conteris explained before his feeding that Guantánamo is only the most notorious episode in a legacy of US abuse, well understood in many parts of the world. Conteris, in a growing dimension of grassroots anti-Guantánamo protests, also blasted the pervasive use of extended solitary confinement — likened by some human rights bodies to torture — in the US prison system. Conteris had in fact begun his hunger strike on July 8, partly to support the 30,000 prisoners in California and other states who at that time began refusing food to protest solitary confinement. Though focused primarily still on the 164 men currently at Guantánamo, the movement to close the prison has expanded to address broader regimes of penal violence, gaining new allies as a result.

None of us left Washington, D.C., however, believing that our words or witness would make any immediate difference. Under favorable circumstances, the Appeals Court might rule that the lawsuit has proper standing, yet kick the question of jurisdiction up to the conservative Supreme Court, already reluctant to give Boumidiene any teeth. (In June 2012 the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of Adnan Latif, which contested rulings that greatly skewed the habeas proceedings of detainees in favor of the government; three-months later, and with legal avenues for his release effectively blocked, Latif was found dead at Guantánamo, presumably by suicide.) Even if we finally won on jurisdiction, convincing any court to ban forced-feeding remained a long shot. And any such ruling would likely be years away.

More deeply, we know that presidential promises, like the one Obama again gave last May to close the prison, may count for little. Worse still, protestations of noble intent — such as he is fond of making — can smother the urgency to fulfill the intention. Last spring and summer, the hunger strike inspired hope that the American state would at last reckon with Guantánamo. That hope pulsed through protests and vigils, petitions, solidarity fasts, media editorials, wide reportage of the numbers of cleared inmates and the staggering cost to imprison them, and even the call by leading Senators to shutter Guantánamo.

Yet much of this momentum was leeched away by another vague pledge, bureaucratic inertia, and inevitably fading public attention. The Obama administration can claim, since the president’s speech, a paltry two releases from the prison, the first in two years.

* * *

The gears of policy and politics are again turning, rekindling a cautious optimism we might have rationally abandoned years ago. The Executive Order President Obama signed in March 2011 authorizing indefinite detention at Guantanamo established a system to review the status of some detainees. Just now, on November 22, 2013, has the first such review taken place. As yet closed to the media, these Periodic Review Board hearings provide the inmates a chance to plead their case before military and intelligence officials. These proceedings could, one day, result in some being released.

The Senate’s proposed version of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act removes onerous constraints on the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo that the Obama administration insists have tied its hands. (Advocates for the detained men sharply dispute the extent of the constraint.) For years the administration threatened to veto such restrictions but let them stand. This year, however, Obama’s team has been lobbying hard to clear away legislative obstacles to fulfilling the president’s stated policy. But the Senate version (as yet held up by a Republican filibuster unrelated to the Guantanamo provisions) must still be reconciled with that of the Republican-controlled House. The House bill currently contains amendments that would make Guantánamo even harder to close than it already is.

Behind the qualified victory in the Senate lay the kind of full court press from leading human rights organizations not seen in years. To enhance their congressional call-in efforts, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and other groups consulted on and promoted a video (see below) of the anti-Guantánamo song We Are America featuring the youthful jazz musician Esperanza Spalding. With an ingenious blend of defiance and patriotism, indignation and optimism, the video exemplifies the “this is not my America” argument common within anti-Guantánamo rhetoric. (“I am America / In my America / It don’t stand for this,” sings Spalding.) With the video’s impeccable styling, cameos by Stevie Wonder and Harry Belafonte, and gorgeous singer, the campaign to close the prison has never seemed so hip, or seductive. I too want to believe in the America — principled, egalitarian, and hopeful — pictured in the video, just like I want to believe that Guantánamo will soon close.

But the odds of that are slim, so activists are already planning protests in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere on January 11, 2014 — the start of the 13th year of the operation of the detention facility at Guantánamo. They will embody the spirit of Spalding’s video. Yet as part of our protests, Andrés Conteris will likely undergo another nasogastric feeding, providing a macabre contrast to remind us that such brutality, too, remains our America.

As an organizer with Witness Against Torture, I thank Mark Engler and Andrés Conteris for contributing to this piece.

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