As President Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term, his inaugural speech was thick with messages of social justice. Drawing on the day we remember him, Obama echoed and invoked the legacy of the great Martin Luther King Jr., as he declared, “We cannot walk alone … our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
The grandeur of Obama’s inauguration aside, I eye his promising words with skepticism and sadness. It’s true, since the passing of King we’ve seen uplifting leaps in progress for the civil and human rights of African-Americans, the LGBT community, women and so many more. However, I can’t help but wonder if Obama thinks the American public has a bad memory.
One of Obama’s main campaign promises in 2008 was to shut down Guantanamo Bay; a move The Washington Times said “would erase a terrorist recruiting tool and black spot on America’s human rights record.”
Guantanamo Bay is a military detention center in Cuba opened in 2002. The center is incredibly controversial and divisive. Many claim Guantanamo Bay, aka Gitmo, is a hub for torture, human rights abuse and general human misery. Its vocal supporters typically allege it houses extremely dangerous terrorist operatives and keeping them there helps to prevent atrocities from occurring.
A 2011 article from The Guardian illuminated what has been—and in large part still is—a dark, secretive corner of military policy. Drawing on over 700 leaked classified documents, the article explains Guantanamo Bay is “focused less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters than on extracting intelligence.”
The article claims many of the inmates found at Gitmo prove harmless and include “an 89-year-old Afghan villager suffering from senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim.”
The documents support the belief that the most controversial prison in the world incarcerates people on the slimmest of pretexts and supports any means of extracting information, including torture, from even the most unlikely sources of useful intelligence.
If anything diminishes the support of Gitmo, it is that in 2009 an interagency task force created by the Obama administration cleared 86 prisoners to be released. Yet all 86 of those prisoners are still being held at Guantanamo Bay.
All of this brings us back to our smiling president. In claiming “our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth,” Obama clearly assumed the audience knew there was a silent asterisk at the end of that statement.
Obama’s hands are not tied. He can exert his influence to shut down the heinous prison, but lacks the will.
By not making good on his promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay, Obama besmirches human rights, spits on the legacy of his Nobel Peace Prize and perpetuates the lie that the United States is a champion of freedom for all.