Moral Objections to Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp


Henry Thoreau stated on page 66 that “those who rule do so because they are physically the strongest, rule of might, majorities should not decide right and wrong, but rather conscience should sense all men have one.” Indeed, it could be said that those who rule when their physicality is threatened or harmed in anyway will take any action necessary to protect their power. No governmental policy adheres more to this statement than the United States government’s detention policy at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Guantanamo Bay detention camp is a detainment and interrogation facility of the United States located within Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the facility was established in 2002 by President Bush to originally serve multiple purposes: First, it was a prison camp; second, the Administration originally expected to charge prisoners with war crimes in military tribunals; finally, and most prudent, it was an interrogation chamber. The facility was best suited for those purposes due to its location and size, in which detainees from both Afghanistan and Iraq were brought to the facilities. The Bush administration maintained that individuals seized in the War on Terror may be taken, kidnapped if necessary, from any location in the world without the knowledge or participation of the host government and without any judicial process. The prisoners would be shipped to Guantanamo to be held for the rest of their lives, based solely on the president’s self-asserted authority. This authority discerned from the fact that the administration appealed to security risks, in that the greater good of security, partly referring to a model of national ethos in the dichotomy of “us” versus “them.” This policy was often supported by many of the administrations key figures, including Donald Rumsfeld, who boldly held that president had unilateral power to decide the status of the people who had been picked up, and could be subjected to detention without any rights under the Geneva Convention and United States law.

In acting on Bush’s behalf, John Yoo, his General Counsel, authored many memos in support his policies (these were commonly referred to as the terror memos). Yoo disagreed with Supreme Court decisions that checked President Bush’s power, arguing that “the ability for the judiciary to make good factual judgments in the middle war takes the court far beyond their normal areas of expertise and risks conflict with the President” Further, Yoo refuted the Court that detainees, mainly American citizens, should not have hearings in criminal courts. “Luck is not going to protect us from this determined adversary” Yoo’s arguments here appear to be highly plausible. Indeed, in times of great conflict, some people would claim that Bush’s actions are in place to protect people against terrorism. Surely, people want to take actions to be safe, such as extra security at airports. Regardless of the long lines, I think it is plausible to say that times have changed since the attacks on September 11th. However, the fear of terrorism, I feel, is no excuse to act like the terrorist; kidnapping individuals, etc…

Thoreau points out, beautifully, on page 66 that “men serve the State as machines, yet exhibit no free exercise of moral sense.” It appears to me that when evaluating the actions of the Bush administration in Guantanamo Bay, many administration officials fail to recognize the extent to their disservice to the Constitution, as well as the reputation for the nation as a whole. Many officials, including those at the Justice Department and the Department of Defense, simply regard their actions as “only following orders”; they do not, for a moment, take the time to consider the consequences and effects of the way they treat the prisoners. Such treatment not only, in my opinion, puts others in danger, but rather dehumanizes America as a nation. In other words, the Bush administration used policies contrary to the Constitution, including not letting detainees have access to the information at their trial or holding the detainees indefinitely in order to collect evidence. This counters, for example, the Sixth Amendment (right to a speedy trial).

How would Thoreau counter this action? He suggest, on page 73, that “if [a law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice against another, then I say break it.” It seems implausible, however, to break from the actions at Guantanamo, since it is controlled in a different country on a well-regulated military base. The closest “Thoreau” answer, may be to not pay taxes to fund the military (the IRS would love this suggestion).

How do you believe Thoreau would respond to the situation at Guantanamo Bay?

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2 Responses to Moral Objections to Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp

  1. davidkoz says:

    I’m glad that you brought up the fact that many administration officials mindlessly do what they’re told as far as Guantanamo is concerned. They are surely aware that by facilitating the happenings at Guantanamo, they are doing a disservice to the Constitution, as you mention. I believe that Thoreau would take issue with those “men [who] serve the State as machines” (66) because they are doing nothing to combat the unlawful acts administered to those at this detention camp. Thoreau writes, “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support” (71). It is this excerpt that leads me to believe Thoreau would rather see the administration officials linked to Guantanamo Bay refuse to have a hand in the unlawful and immoral happenings at Guantanamo.

    As far as President Bush’s policy in Guantanamo was concerned, couldn’t his actions be justified by Thoreau’s ideology? Bush treated inmates immorally to protect the United States and as Thoreau exclaims, “We preserve the so-called ‘peace’ of our community by deeds of petty violence every day” (Zinn xxviii).

  2. davehopkins2 says:

    You make a very good point in this post. Having studied the issue extensively in POLSCI 319 (The Politics of Civil Liberties and Civil Rights), I agree with you that this action violated the Constitution and that the government adopted this policy in order to protect its power. Interestingly enough, I think that Thoreau’s analogy of people serving the state like machines also applies to civilians. It almost seems as though the attacks of September 11, 2001 flipped a switch on a vast majority of the American populace that resulted in absolute deference to the will of the government. I do not blame the American people for this, at least not entirely. Tragedy has a way of making people defer to a power that they feel can protect them. However, the way that the Bush administration utilized this tacit “power” is inexcusable and plays directly into the aforementioned criticism of government as put forth by Thoreau. At the end of your article, you ask how Thoreau would respond to the situation at Guantanamo Bay. I agree that the closest “ideal” action that Thoreau could take would be to refrain from paying taxes. This law doesn’t entirely apply to the American people, which makes it very difficult to break the law on an individual level. However, I think that there is other way that Thoreau would “break” this law. First, I think that Thoreau would refuse to submit his name for the Selective Service draft list. As I am sure most know, this is a list that all men of a certain age range must sign in order for the government to be able to reinstate a draft at any point. The government relies on this list heavily in order to be assured that it has an adequate potential force to send into action in a time of war. Other than refusing to pay taxes, I feel that this is the form of protest that Thoreau would deem remotely close to “breaking the law”.

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