For those of us who have come to political consciousness since 9/11, the war on terror seems like a fact of nature rather than of history. We cannot remember a time when the West did not claim to wage war on an abstract concept, and we forget how unprecedented this is. The only analogous example in recent history is that of the Cold War, and even then there was a strong, vocal minority in the West sympathetic to the global Left – too large a minority to be dismissed merely as traitors or insurgents. What is unique to the War on Terror is that it is conceptualised as a fight not against an ideology (communism, fascism, Catholicism, Islam) but an idea, an idea that no one could possibly agree with. We might as say “we’re fighting a war against evil” and be done with it.
Such neatly polarised abstractions have clearly not been borne out by the last decade. Iraq had dissolved into tribal chaos, we are midst of a sheepish withdrawal from Afghanistan, Islamophobia is rife at home, and the ostensibly temporary authoritarian measures passed to ‘protect’ us have not been repealed. War of terror, indeed. Notably, the US detention centre at Guantánamo Bay remains open, in flagrant defiance of international law. This January marks three years since President Obama pledged to close it down. It hasn’t happened.
Guantánamo Bay is another case of how historical contingency has faded into natural fact. The right to a trial, let alone a fair one, has been all but suspended for its inmates, who have in many cases been incarcerated without even knowing what they’re there for – there have been almost 800 inmates in total since its opening in 2002. Whilst there have been a trickle of releases, several hundred inmates still remain, including British resident Shaker Aamer, who, his lawyers claim, now suffers from severe health issues as a result of torture and solitary confinement. Despite being cleared for release in 2007, he still remains.
It would be naive to claim that none of the Guantánamo prisoners are entirely clear of association with any terrorist groups, or that some strategically useful information has not been extracted from them in the last decade – there seems little other reason for Obama allowing the centre to remain open after such a public pledge. Yet the nature of detention, and the methods used to extract information, are utterly unacceptable. We should not need reminding that torture and indefinite incarceration are banned under international law, and that’s without even considering the legal issues arising from America disregarding national sovereignty to rendition prisoners anywhere it pleases. It is painfully ironic that the US, defining itself in opposition to “the terrorists”, has resorted to terrorising its prisoners in the process.
How we can begin to undo the colossal damage wrought by twelve years of the War on Terror, to compensate for the multitude of human rights abuses, to repair crucial international relations, is still very much an open question. It will require at least the same level of will and resources that have been pumped into the war itself. A place to begin, however, is the closing of Guantánamo Bay. Despite everything, we are very fortunate in 2013 to be welcoming Obama rather than Romney back to the White House. Making the president honour his pledge to close this detention centre would be highly symbolic – a sign that the people of the West will no longer tolerate the injustices of their leadership.