I remember, as if in a distant dream, repeating through sobs of joy and exhaustion, “It’s over. It’s over.” On live TV President Obama had just signed, as his first official act in January 2009, an executive order mandating the closure of the prison at Guantánamo. To Obama’s right stood a proud Vice President Biden, gently coaching his neophyte boss through the momentous ceremony.
As my tears began to drain away, so too did the sting of years of torture, wars based on lies, and the grotesque contortions of the law-making up Bush’s War on Terror. All the work of Witness Against Torture and other anti-GTMO activists — the frigid White House rallies, the endless press releases, the many fasts, the arrests for civil disobedience — had borne fruit. Tortured men could now go home, or stand trial before a fair tribunal.
What should have been an end to the Guantánamo saga proved the beginning of more grueling chapters. The Obama administration dithered on its own policy and then cowered in the face of Republican obstruction. Putrid legal rulings all but wiped away the hard-won right of uncharged men to challenge their detention in federal courts. In 2012, desperate and defiant, the detainees launched another hunger strike, countered by brutal forced feedings. Their attorneys responded with new lawsuits, while activists worldwide engaged in solidarity fasts, some lasting many weeks.
Only by these protests did Obama restart in May 2013 his stalled efforts to empty the prison. Its population winnowed, in the last years of his presidency, from more than 200 to 41. Then came Trump, freezing Guantánamo in place by means of executive malice.