When the timing is right, the very sound of singing might break the chains of suffering. That is why I sang with 20 other Witness Against Torture activists, flanked by our supporters, as we faced the White House on January 11th, 2016. Maybe the time would be right, and we would free the last 103 Muslim men from their unjust captivity at Guantanamo Bay prison. (By coincidence, a day later that number went down to 93.)
This wasn’t the first time I had come to Washington with this intention; it was the ninth, and the fourteenth anniversary of the opening of the dungeon called Guantanamo. For a whole week our small group had been fasting and demonstrating in public places in solidarity with the prisoners, until finally we came to the house of the man who could free them.
President Obama could have watched from his windows as we set up a living room in the wide pedestrian area in front of the White House where protests are permitted. We arranged 2 chairs, rugs and a table with food and flowers, and invited all who were attending the “Close Guantanamo” rally to take turns entering this space with the photo of one of the detainees. We read his name and what “home” might mean to him, then placed his photo on one of the rugs saying, “I want to send you home.” When all had been honored in this way, a group of us, dressed in orange prison jumpsuits and the black hoods of torture, stepped onto the White House sidewalk where people are not permitted to stand and risked arrest to bring our song to Obama:
“We hear a wonderful sound. It is the breaking of chains. We see a path full of hope. We have found the way. Let them go home. Let them go home. Let them go home. Let them go today.” (lyrics and music by New York Peace Poets)
We sang these words for a solid hour, then stepped away. We had delivered our message. The timing may not have been right, but there was power in the singing – a power that might help send these men home. And why should they go home? Because we have found no evidence with which to charge them. Indeed, 44 (now 34) had been cleared for release as many as 9 years ago and yet still remain in Guantanamo, locked away from their families. Our government has admitted that many men were falsely accused and turned over to the U.S. army in order to collect the $5000 reward.
If we are not going to try these men, we must release them. Indefinite detention is a form of torture. The fact of our government torturing people – and not just Muslim men from foreign countries – is not a matter of dispute. The Senate “Torture Report” released in 2014 has revealed the ugly truth. Our treatment of the men in Guantanamo is part of this ugly truth. I have seen a video of the psychological torture of Canadian detainee, Omar Khadir, who was only 15 when he was dug out of the rubble of a bombed house and accused of killing an American soldier. Shaker Aamer, a recently released detainee from Great Britain, has testified to the physical torture of this same child, which he called “unspeakable.” (Omar was released to Canada in 2012.)
It could be that we need Guantanamo to keep more ugly truths locked up forever.
When Witness Against Torture gathers in D.C., we admit to ourselves and to God that we are not perfect and the men in Guantanamo are not perfect. We try to face our role in what our government and our culture do to dehumanize the Other. Most of us are white and have an obligation to acknowledge the privilege that brings to our lives. When we risk arrest, we are not likely to be abused or shot for doing so, or tortured in a jail cell, or denied counsel or deported.
I know my protest is not unique. Many people have spoken out before me, and we can point to events when the timing has been right and change has come: chains have been broken. If Obama does close Guantanamo, he must give the detainees due process – free them or try them - not transfer them to another prison where they can be forgotten. These Muslim men are human beings. We are human beings. When the timing is right, we will embrace our common humanity.
(For photos of our actions in Washington: www.witnesstorture.org, Facebook)