Few Americans ever took in the vastness of the prison outsourcing system the administration of George W. Bush set up from Afghanistan to Iraq, Thailand to Poland, the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. In those years, I began referring to that global network of prisons as our own “Bermuda Triangle of injustice.” At one point, it housed at least 15,000 prisoners from Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca in Iraq to the “Salt Pit” in Afghanistan and, of course, Guantánamo. They were often kept under the grimmest of conditions, involving in a striking number of cases torture and sometimes death. All those prisons, large and small, were borrowed or built to ensure that captives in the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, the innocent and the guilty alike, whether taken in battle, traded for bounties, or kidnapped by the CIA off the streets of global cities as well as in the backlands of the planet, would be — every last one of them — beyond the reach of the law, American or international.
And that couldn’t have been more intentional. An administration whose top officials had torture methods — the euphemism of that moment was “enhanced interrogation techniques” — demonstrated in the White House wanted a free hand to do whatever it damn pleased, including waterboarding, slamming heads off walls, depriving prisoners of sleep, or just about anything else. They were going to “take the gloves off,” as the phrase of the era went, and no judge, no legal system was about to stop them. Their lawyers in the Department of Justice even redefined “severe physical or mental pain or suffering” in the classic legal description of torture so that an act would not be considered torture if “intent” wasn’t there — and the only way to know about intent would be to ask the potential torturer. (Even then, he or she would need to have “specific intent to cause pain” in mind.)
In this web of CIA-operated “black sites” extending across significant parts of the planet, the jewel in the crown, a veritable recruitment poster for jihadist groups, was Guantánamo. It was tantalizingly just 90 miles offshore from American justice and pioneered those iconic orange jumpsuits for its prisoners that would later be adopted by ISIS for its torture and murder videos. There, prisoners could be kept more or less forever without either charges or trials, a system for which Donald Trump has shown remarkable enthusiasm.
TomDispatch has been covering all of this for years and yet I felt I first came face to face with Guantánamo only the other day in the strangest, quietest way imaginable. I went to meet Erin Thompson, author of Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present. She then took me through “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo,” the first show of paintings and other works by some of the prisoners there, which she had curated. Who even knew that they painted, no less with a startling proficiency? Though the works were (as she describes today) in some way faceless — untitled and largely without human images — something about finally “meeting” those prisoners (and ex-prisoners), however facelessly, can’t help but take your breath away and remind you that we are all, however uncomfortably, in the same grim world.