What the NYT Guantanamo story says about the rest of America
I’ve been thinking a lot about the sort of weird Carol Rosenberg story in the NYT last week about Guantanamo Bay.
The tweet about it was a nightmare, but the story itself had a much different tone, a sort of bleak look at how this site of military horror supports basic American life around it.
The second paragraph, what journalists would call the nutgraf, is actually a devastating way to frame the reality of the place:
But this military base is more than one big prison. About 6,000 people live at the U.S. Navy outpost, which has the trappings of small-town America and the amenities of a college campus, and functions like a cross between a gated community and a police state.
I mean, it’s beautiful. The next graf:
It has a Defense Department school system for the children of sailors and contractors, a seaport for Navy and Coast Guard supply missions, bars, ball fields, neighborhoods with swing sets, beaches with barbecue grills and pleasure boats to rent for excursions on the bay.
A few years ago, when a law school acquaintance of mine went there on an ostensibly law-related trip, I became obsessed with the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base geotag on Instagram, which supports an alarming number of half naked beach pics, and is generally a portrait of American military life on a tropical island. There are sail boats and beach trips, guys getting swole, pregnancies, new births, sunsets, and dogs. There’s a cursed photo of a rainbow over the McDonalds arches, US/military flags, and a rather desolate parking lot, next to what appears to be an entrance to the base.
The tag is full of people proud to be Americans in the Navy. Every 20 posts or so there’s a political post interspersed, with photos of Guantánamo detainees and reminders that this is a site of torture and shame and the complete breakdown of due process in the name of combatting terrorism.
The piece compares the base to a college campus multiple times and matter of factly details its amenities: a radio station, a McDonalds, a Tiki Bar, two swimming pools, a school. The pared-down details, statements of facts without much frill, mostly, paint a picture of a place where it’s easy to forget what goes on behind the razor wire, in the buildings that you are not allowed to photograph. (It also, to be fair, calls it a police state more than once.)
I’ve been sitting with this part of it for a couple of days. The outsize view in my own head of the horrors of Guantánamo makes the portrait painted of daily life there disorienting. However, the more I think about it the more I conclude that the otherness of the place—its distance, its physical and legal remove from “actual” mainland United States—allows us to think of it as an aberration rather than the reflection of American reality that it is.
The feeling that I get reading this piece is the same sort of tingle down my spine that I feel walking in lower Manhattan between Tribeca and Chinatown. There, looming between the $10 million lofts of Tribeca and one of the greatest cultural and culinary neighborhoods in America is the Manhattan Detention Complex, the city jail connected to the 100 Centre Street courthouse, and the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the (recently closed for its squalor and violence) federal jail on Park Row behind the federal courthouse. The same is true in downtown Brooklyn, where the Brooklyn Detention Complex rises above Atlantic Ave, between Boerum Place and Smith Street, about five steps away from the cute little shops and restaurants of Cobble Hill.
There are usually some people housed in those jails, but mostly they are transitory spaces, where inmates from larger, further away facilities are bussed in for the day when they have court. Still, they remind me as I walk by of the institutional horrors that we subject people to every day in our own backyard.
I would prefer there be no jails, but downtown jails are more honest I think than Rikers Island or the larger federal jail, MDC, in Sunset Park, which are both largely invisible to most people who live, work, and visit New York City. More people should have to confront the violence and the cages that are necessary to the physicality of a jail if it is going to be as large a part of our society as we allow it to be. Jails in the middle of the city are just as horrible as those out of sight, but if those are places we want to exist politically, we should have to look at them every day as we go on with our lives.
These places, which exist within every American community, are sites of squalid, violent conditions for people who often are being held pre-trial for months if not years. How different really is it from Guantánamo?
Just one month ago, the NY Post (the Post!) ran a story with images someone had taken inside of the Rikers Island intake facility, showing “as many as 26 men stuffed body to body in single cells where they were forced to relieve themselves inside plastic bags and take turns sleeping on the fetid floors.”
Today, the Daily News ran a story about the experiences of women who were recently moved from Rikers to the Bedford Hills state facility in Westchester, where a corrections officer allegedly told women, “they would be beaten, placed in a solitary housing unit, beaten again and left naked until he felt like releasing them.”
In New York City, because of Covid, there have been months-approaching-years-long delays on getting cases to trial, with plenty of people locked in cages pending trial for the whole of the pandemic. It’s a relatively regular occurrence for people to simply “not be produced” at the courthouse for their court dates, and even more common for corrections not to produce people in the video booths at Rikers for private discussions with their lawyers. It’s not 20 years without a trial bad, but it’s also not something I ever want to experience from the inside of the cage.
Guantánamo might be a uniquely terrible, tortuous prison, and thus the article about the way that life goes on for the people that surround it strikes a uniquely discordant note. But it’s also in many ways I think portrayed as uniquely terrible because it makes us more comfortable to think that human rights abuses only happen elsewhere, only happen outside of America, only happen in a military context, or a foreign relations context, or a bungled war on terror context.
It helps to otherize Guantánamo because then we don’t have to confront what happens behind the barbed wire in our own backyards, and the way that we just go about our lives in the spaces we’ve built up around the cages in our own communities.
Reminder! This newsletter is part of the star-studded Discontents lineup, a collective of newsletter writers on the left. We have a separate newsletter with a weekly summary of everybody’s work. This week, Spencer Ackerman wrote about Lauren Boebert, Ilhan Omar, who can be a terrorist, and who can never be.