The End of the 00s: The Guantanamo Gift Shop, by Spencer Ackerman

by The End of the 00s


I always found it strange when polemicists denounced George W. Bush for saying, after 9/11, that Americans should go shopping. Andrew Bacevich, who’s emerged as possibly the premiere root-and-branch critic of American militarism, wrote an impassioned op-ed explaining the reasoning behind that critique. “From the very outset, the president described the ‘war on terror’ as a vast undertaking of paramount importance,” Bacevich hectored in 2008. “But he simultaneously urged Americans to carry on as if there were no war.” What in the world were we supposed to do? Stand in line to fill out job applications at munitions factories? Devote a larger percentage of the day to re-spooling footage of the Towers falling? Militarize our lives even further? George Bush could never have exploited that. This was the anti-militarism critique, remember.

Bacevich’s idea was that blocking off the psychic exits-entertainment, principally-to the great terror nightmare of the last decade would have awakened the country to the unbounded costs of a global war. But that goes against the grain of American experience. Consider the origins of Guantanamo Bay, the decade’s trademark symbol of American descent into impunity. Guantanamo was a solution to two legal hurdles that appear to be mutually insurmountable.

First: the longer you hold someone in detention, the likelier it is that he’ll mount a legal challenge to his confinement, even if he’s taken from the battlefields of Afghanistan. So in late 2001, a group of Bush’s lawyers-most notably John Yoo at the Justice Department, David Addington at the White House and Jim Haynes at the Pentagon-argued that those long-term detainees needed to be held on foreign soil, outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. Guantanamo Bay, a naval base in southeastern Cuba used by the U.S. for 100 years, was a compromise choice.

But. Let’s say you wanted to torture those detainees. There are laws against that. But those laws, like the federal Torture Statute, apply to government employees operating overseas, where, Congress once reasoned, torture is more likely to occur. So to circumvent the federal Torture Statute, the lawyers wrote, Guantanamo is “included within the definition of the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

From that deliberate absurdity-Guantanamo Bay is and is not the United States of America, depending on the law you need to flout-flowed years of descent into rogue-nationhood. This is a sampling of what resulted: An interrogation log of one of several people believed to be the intended 20th 9/11 hijacker records that at 10 a.m. on November 25, 2002 at Guantanamo, Mohammed al-Qahtani (“Detainee #063”) urinated in his pants after his interrogators intravenously administered him fluids for three and a half hours and refused to let him use the bathroom until he told them about new al-Qaeda plots. That was considered a humane alternative to, say, letting dogs maul detainees. Because in the America of the Aughts, we just let detainees think we were going to let the dogs maul them. “Using dogs is equal to the Fear Up technique,” a former Guantanamo commander, Major General Mike Dunlavey, explained to an investigator in 2005, referring to a long-legal interrogation method of exploiting a detainee’s fear of the unknown. “It breaks [detainees’] concentration in response to the interrogation techniques. They would be thinking about that dog.”

Quick: does anyone really think that avoiding an extra trip to H&M; or another Venti Latte would have stopped this kind of depravity?

But let’s be fair to Bacevich. When I visited Guantanamo Bay in the summer of 2005-the middle of this wretched, spiritually-draining decade-the last thing I expected to find was the summit, the epitome, the apotheosis of the Bush era’s epic union of consumerism and brutality. Yes: Guantanamo Bay has a gift shop. I bought this adorable plush iguana there. I’ll explain.

Night of the Iguana

Guantanamo Bay, as we understand it today, is actually two things in one. Ever since the U.S. took it for use as a coaling station during the Spanish-American War, it’s been a 45-square mile naval base and Cold War anachronism. As a result, if you drive through it, you see all the creature comforts necessary for extended naval deployments. Southern-style plantation houses for senior officers and their families. Kindergartens. A giant outdoor movie theater. Sports leagues. And something called a NEX, or a Naval Exchange, the Navy’s equivalent of the Army’s post exchanges. Think of them like a minimally stocked mall compressed into a single store. The NEX is where you get your toiletries, fresh batteries, new DVDs, video games, condoms, new socks and underwear, snacks, somewhat recent magazines. And souvenirs of your tour.

Those souvenirs-more on them in a second-would be less discomfiting if a small section of Guantanamo wasn’t reserved for the detention of several hundred alleged terrorists. You heard endlessly throughout this decade they were “the worst of the worst.” But they never were. Those people, like 9/11 architect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were held not by the military but by the CIA, in undisclosed prisons where agency interrogators tortured the shit out of them. (Literally. There was a torture technique called “prolonged diapering.”)

These guys at Guantanamo were sort of like the middle tier: not bad enough for those so-called Black Sites, but too valuable from an intelligence perspective or too dangerous from a military perspective to be held in the U.S.’s huge prison at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. They were held in a place called Camp Delta, a complex of six prisons built in the Aughts after the old open-air mesh cages of Camp X-Ray proved to be insufficient for holding people forever. Camp Delta is just a small slice of Guantanamo. And it’s only a few hundred yards from the NEX.

I was there on a Potemkin tour in the summer of 2005. The military used to arrange for a four-day journalists’ tour so the press could see how great conditions in Guantanamo actually are. Cuba is baking hot in the summer, easily over 100 degrees, and the pace of the tour is accordingly lethargic, which is appropriate, given the fact that you go there to see indefinite detention. Over the course of touring, two right-wing radio journalists and I were given time to speak with Guantanamo’s guards, who told us detainees threw cocktails of body fluids at them. At night, we got drunk with our cheerful Army handlers at the officers’ club and base’s tiki bar, a low-key spot near a cliff on the edge of the island, as they debated whether Star Fleet in Star Trek was a Navy or Air Force outgrowth. (It is very obviously the Navy; Admiral Kirk, fellas.) I bonded with one of my press handlers, an Iraq veteran named Justin Valera Behrens, over our mutual patronage of the fully-nude strip club Super-Sexe when in Montreal. Justin would later return to his Pennsylvania home to run for Congress, unsuccessfully.

All that was to soften us up for what we saw in Camp Delta. Camp Delta-why don’t I just refer you to the magazine piece I wrote about this-is no joke. The individual-detention units, Camps One through Three, feature small metal cages painted green, barely big enough for a bed, a hole in the floor to relieve oneself, and a Qu’ran slung from a surgical mask (to keep it off the ground). An hour of exercise is allotted per day, we were told. (I’m not sure what, if anything, about those conditions have changed in the intervening four years.) Camp Four is the group-detention units, dormitory-style imprisonment for more docile detainees, who get access to board games and a small area for playing soccer in exchange for being calm. Those detainees wear tan jumpsuits. The orange ones are for detainees who pose a danger to the guards. When I walked into Camp Delta, I saw a detainee in an orange jumpsuit being strapped down to the flatbed of a small motorized cart for transport to God-knows-where. He glowered at us when he caught us looking at him. I think back on that when I hear right-wing protesters tell me that their freedom is jeopardized by Obama’s attempts to restore the top marginal tax rate to its 2001 level.

When we were done with our Camp Delta tour, we got into a small bus and drove the five or so minutes it took to get to the NEX for some refreshments. Now, on your way to the NEX from Camp Delta, you encounter something that gives the lie to the idea that Guantanamo detainees are too dangerous to be held in the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois, which is the Obama administration’s destination for a still-undetermined number of them. That’s the transplanted bougainvillea of the officers’ families residence. This is literally a small ersatz suburban community with manufactured lawns, looking like the opening credits to Weeds, right downhill from a facility housing hundreds of alleged terrorists. I saw a Big Wheel left out on someone’s porch.

The NEX, however, is even more jarring. On most U.S. military bases overseas, you can buy souvenirs of your tours, and the NEX is no exception. It just happens that Guantanamo souvenirs commemorate service to a policy of extralegal indefinite detention that most of humanity considers barbaric. And this puts Naval officers who aren’t part of the detention facility-and especially their children-in a shitty spot.

For instance: there’s a rack at the NEX filled with refrigerator magnets decorated with kids’ names. Those magnets show a smiling dolphin bursting from some ocean spray in front of a rainbow, above your kid’s name and the legend GUANTANAMO BAY. I was dating a girl named Sue at the time, so I scanned the magnet rack for the S’s.

Then come the t-shirts. There were dozens of them, hanging in rows on the wall like at a skate shop. Again, the shirts were another unfortunate consequence of Guantanamo’s transition into an internationally infamous detention facility. Some of them, trying to be zany, rattled off lists of how you’d know you’ve spent too much time at Guantanamo, like, for instance, apathy to the pine cone-shaped shit excreted by the base’s signature rodent, the Banana Rat. (Of course, the shirts meant how military officers knew they’d spent too much time at Guantanamo, not detainees, who document overlong stays through hunger strikes and habeas corpus petitions and suicide attempts.)

But a minority of the shirts for sale were targeted at the newest NEX customer: the guard. Perhaps, you manned a guard post at the perimeter of Delta. Maybe you’d be interested in a silkscreened black silhouette of your post, above a legend that reads “The Taliban Towers: Five-Star Lodging.” (A star for each of the military services. Yes, they count the Coast Guard.) Or let’s say you were part of the military command supervising the maintenance of the prisons, officially titled the Joint Detention Operations Group. There is a shirt for you, featuring a snarling cartoon pit bull, because — get it? — you serve in the JDOG. (Dunlavey: “Using dogs is equal to the Fear Up technique….”)

My radio-host friends giggled and, truth be told, I giggled along with them. I packed my arms full with $100 worth of shirts to take home for my friends, family and co-workers. The only thing I kept for myself was the adorable 23-inch green plush iguana with GUANTANAMO BAY stitched across both his sides in yellow thread. Some explanation: Guantanamo Bay is a safe haven for iguanas. Cuba has become so poor under the burden of sclerotic communism and decades of U.S. trade sanctions that the populace has taken to eating the once-abundant reptiles. The smart iguanas have migrated to Guantanamo, where U.S. environmental laws protect the endangered creatures. Many open spaces on Guantanamo feature a lazy lizard sunning herself on a flat rock. Naturally, young kids who spend a slice of their life growing up on the base will want a stuffed iguana doll. The NEX is happy to serve that market, offering a snuggle-ready doll manufactured by the Fiesta company of Vernon, California and assembled in China. I picked one up and took him back home, where my dog tried to eat him. Ever since then he’s guarded my desk at work. He’s a conversation starter.

Obama will try to close Guantanamo early next year. There will be no reprisal for anyone who designed the policies that created the detention facility, aside from whatever their consciences impose, and if Dick Cheney’s Politico interviews are any indication, that isn’t much of a penalty. A report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Management that reportedly recommends professional sanctions against Yoo and his former DOJ boss, the federal judge Jay Bybee, has been long suppressed by both the Bush and Obama administrations. Senate reports have exhaustively documented the torture that their work encouraged, at Guantanamo and Bagram and Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. But Yoo still has his tenured teaching position at Berkeley’s prestigious Boalt Hall. His legal expenses, a consequence of defending himself against torture victims who want restitution, are paid for by you, every April 15.

I’d like to say that the end of this horrific decade will end the legacy of places like Guantanamo Bay. But Americans are unique in fooling ourselves that the slate wipes clean every time a calendar year hits a multiple of ten. There is no piece of legal architecture in place today that would prevent the opening of neo-Guantanamo, for the very good reason that the statutes against torture are really fucking clear about prohibiting torture, and they predated Guantanamo — yet still Guantanamo occurred, outside the law, with no consequence for its architects. The Thomson prison, central to Obama’s plans to close Guantanamo, will not allow ex-Guantanamo inmates access to any visitors besides the Red Cross and their lawyers and law enforcement. Its inmates will be tried not in federal courts, but in military commissions that still allow for the admission of hearsay as evidence, something the U.S. Constitution does not look on keenly. Tom Parker of Amnesty International said, on the day the Thomson plan was announced, that all Obama is doing is “changing the Zip Code of Guantanamo.” The best that can be said so far is that it doesn’t have a gift shop.

Spencer Ackerman covers national security for the Washington Independent. He has written for such fanzines as Inside Front, Viral or Bacterial? and Supplicant, but these days he maintains a blog called Attackerman.