Do you ever wish you had a time machine? Does that thought ever cross your mind? I mean altruistically, like when you read an article or a book that talks about slavery, or the Holocaust, or genocide in Rwanda. . . do you ever think, “if only we had a time machine, we could go back in time and stop these things from happening”?
I know the thought has crossed my mind. It’s usually a fleeting notion, a simple daydream fashioned from mutated fragments of long-forgotten science fiction shows I watched as a child. But as a thirty-something American here at the beginning of the new millennium, I’ve found myself considering the implications of this flight of fancy much more seriously.
No, I have not been thinking about how to build a time machine. But it’s hard for me to explain what I have been thinking about without some background.
- Lindsey Graham, Republican Senator from South Carolina
Every year, my girlfriend organizes a Christmas party where every attendee is given six gingerbread pieces based on a standard house template: four pieces for the walls and two pieces for the roof. Several bowls of royal icing, dozens of bags of assorted candy, and three hours of diligent sculpting later, the twenty-odd guests consistently produce a wonderful array of unique gingerbread creations.
Although I’d had my share of grand gingerbread architecture ambitions in years past, 2011 felt different. It was December, and the internet news of the preceding weeks had been filled with talk of two depressing pieces of legislation, each bearing their own seemingly innocuous acronym: SOPA and NDAA. SOPA, while heinous in its own right, is a story for another time. It was the NDAA, or National Defense Authorization Act, that was foremost on my mind.
There’s nothing unusual about Congress debating or passing an NDAA. They do it all the time: every year, once a year, for the past 49 years. Most of the time, it’s nothing more than a set of budgetary guidelines for the Department of Defense. But sometimes, as with many large Congressional bills, the NDAA is expanded to contain things that don’t really have much to do with the defense budget at all.
Such was the case with the 2012 NDAA. In addition to countless pages of detailed budget specifications, preliminary versions of the 2012 NDAA contained sections whose language indicated that Congress was explicitly granting the President of the United States the authority to indefinitely detain anyone, including American citizens on American soil, with no trial and no access to a lawyer.
This was very troubling to me, as I’d hoped it would be to any American. One of the cornerstones of a free society is that the government does not have the authority to put you in jail without first convincing a jury of your peers that it is absolutely necessary. But as the running Congressional debate and subsequent news coverage made abundantly clear, very few people in America actually agreed with, or perhaps even understood, that very simple tenet.
This sort of thing really does get to me. By the time the night of the gingerbread party rolled around, I was downright depressed. As the first guests began to arrive, my mind was on anything but gingerbread houses. I took my allotment of pieces, I selected an old tissue box whose thick cardboard I could use for a base, and I sat down at one of the construction tables, wondering what possible value there could be in constructing yet another holiday gingerbread house.
But then I reconsidered. Isn’t this kind of situation what art is all about? When you’re feeling emotional about an important topic, isn’t that the best time to be presented with a blank canvas for self expression?
I don’t really know what the Guantanamo detention camp looks like. It’s actually somewhat difficult to find extensive photo reference. But the pictures I gathered after a brief internet search made it clear that the only image of Guantanamo bay that existed in the mainstream media consisted of three things: guard towers, razor wire, and hooded prisoners in orange jumpsuits.
I felt no immediate pressure to construct razor wire or a guard tower, as those seem readily fashionable from parts plentiful at the gingerbread party. But hooded prisoners in orange jumpsuits? Materials for those would be harder to come by. I knew I would have to act fast to secure the necessary candies.
Thankfully, having been one of the first people to begin building, I was able to quickly move from table to table, selfishly securing one-hundred percent of the available orange gummi bears. To this take, I quickly added the only available box of black licorice gumdrops. All that was left, it seemed to me, was to fit the gummi bears with their licorice hoods, and they would begin to resemble their Guantanamo-incarcerated counterparts.
As I returned to my table and began the metaphorically gruesome process of removing the gummi bears’ heads and replacing them with licorice gumdrops, it occurred to me that my having selectively stolen specific gummi bears from the other tables without asking anyone’s permission was not that dissimilar from the manner in which my country gathered the occupants of Guantanamo in the first place. The only real difference is that when it’s the military gathering whatever humans they want instead of me gathering whatever gummi bears I want, the procedure is given a conveniently obfuscated name: extraordinary rendition.
This is one of the most chilling aspects of Guantanamo Bay: anyone can end up there. Today, you could be working for the Red Cross (or Red Crescent), and tomorrow, American soldiers abduct you from your workplace, throw a hood over your head, shove you on a plane, and the next thing you know, you’re sitting naked in a cell in Guantanamo Bay.
Does that sound like an exaggeration? I wish it was. Unfortunately, not only can that happen exactly as I described it, but it actually did happen, more than once.
Take, for example, the case of Lakhdar Boumediene, a director of humanitarian aid for the Red Crescent. On October 19th, 2001, Boumediene was arrested by Bosnian authorities at his workplace by request of the United States government who believed Boumediene was conspiring to bomb the US Embassy in Sarajevo. Boumediene was tried in Bosnia and acquitted, the court finding no evidence of his involvement in any terrorist plot.
But instead of being released, at the request of the United States government, Boumediene was transferred to US military custody. American soldiers restrained him and five others and, without any legal authority to do so, transported them to Guantanamo Bay.
- Joseph Lieberman, Independent Senator from Connecticut
While the seal between my gummi bear prisoners’ necks and their newly-fastened hoods were drying, I turned my attention to the construction of the camp itself. I fashioned a guard tower from graham crackers, wafer cookies, a butter mint, and some chocolate Pocky. Using a fractured wafer as a makeshift booster seat, I installed a gummi bear guard in the tower as the final touch and cemented the entire installation to my cardboard base with a few dollops of royal icing.
Now for the walls. Standing gingerbread pieces end-to-end trivially built a suitable wall, but the visual effect was unconvincing without any representation of the razor wire. Thankfully, after some experimentation, I found that pulled cherry Twizzlers could be looped, pressed, and knotted into a reasonable facsimile.
After spreading a field of royal icing and propping up my now-dry detainee bears, it really was starting to feel like a gummi bear detention facility. And not just to me. Other party guests were starting to look in on the gingerbread prison, seemingly growing unsettled by the whole concept.
But it wasn’t until fellow guest Jonathan Biderman handed me some simple syrup he’d dyed red with food coloring that people really got uneasy.
Well, what would you have done? Imagine you’re me. You know that the US government has officially acknowledged that at the real Guantanamo Bay, prisoners were kept nude, put in sustained isolation, deprived of sleep, forced to endure prolonged exposure to cold, and waterboarded, to the point where, in the case of at least one of the detainees, they were left in a “life-threatening condition”.
You’ve also read the February 2007 report by the Red Cross whose investigators reported that detainees had their hands and feet shackled, had been beaten and kicked in the body and face, and had collars fastened to their necks which were used to “forcefully bang the head and body against the wall”.
I’m sure you’d do the obvious thing, too. You’d place one of your gummi prisoners face down, surrounded by guards, and you’d drizzle some red simple syrup over him, letting a bit soak into the royal icing ground below.
And perhaps, just to be clear that it was not an uncommon occurrence, you’d leave an empty hood and a pool of food coloring, complete with errant footsteps, on the side of the yard where some previous interrogation or punishment had occurred.
My gingerbread Guantanamo was constructed over the course of about three hours in early December. Its prisoners numbered only a dozen, and they were imprisoned for just one month. On January 9th, I am afraid to say, they were eaten, along with the prison walls, by my girlfriend and some similarly sweet-toothed friends during a group viewing of this past Monday’s episode of The Bachelor.
Unfortunately, that’s where the comic relief ends. The horrors of the real Guantanamo detention camp are too numerous to list, and it only takes a few seconds with Google to find as much as you care to read on the subject. So I will summarize simply by telling you what happened to the extraordinary rendition target whose story I began above.
Lakhdar Boumediene spent seven years at Guantanamo. He was never charged with a crime. He was interrogated regularly, deprived of sleep for days at a time. In desperation, he went on a hunger strike, protesting his innocence by refusing to eat. The guards responded by shoving a tube through his nose and down his throat so they could force-feed him. He had a wife, and daughters who were toddlers when we abducted him. By the time he was officially deemed innocent and released on May 15th, 2009, they were nearly teenagers, raised without their father.
The first thing is that nobody disputes the facts. It’s not a conspiracy theory, or a piece of anti-American propaganda. The abduction and subsequent seven-year detention and torture of a humanitarian worker is something we did, and that we don’t even deny. The only thing my government really has to say in their defense is that they don’t consider what they did to technically be torture. I really don’t know what to say to an attitude that callous.
The second thing is that, now more than ever, there’s very little separating you from Lakhdar Boumediene’s fate. As the dust from the 2012 NDAA settles, one thing is abundantly clear from the statements of the Congress and the President of the United States: they both believe that the American military has the discretionary power to indefinitely detain any person, American or otherwise, anywhere in the world, for any purpose.
In his signing statement on the 2012 NDAA, Barack Obama specifically stated that his administration won’t authorize military detention of Americans without trial. If that doesn’t tell you exactly where you stand with your President, I don’t know what does: he thinks he can detain you without trial if that’s what he wants, but he’s decided that he won’t. I guess we’ll just have to hope that he doesn’t change his mind.
At the outset I told you I’d been reconsidering the thought that if we just had a time machine, we could go back in time and erase the atrocities of the past. Now, perhaps, it will make sense why.
Previously, if you’d asked me to identify the difficult part of using a time machine to erase the mistakes of history, I would have said it was the time machine. We have no idea how to build one, after all, and our current understanding of the universe suggests traveling to the past is impossible.
But now I’m starting to realize that traveling back in time isn’t the difficult part after all. It’s what you’d do when you got there that’s well beyond our current understanding.
You see, the time machine isn’t just the easier part; it’s not even required. Every person, at every point in history, lives in a time when atrocities are being committed. Every person, at some time in their life, is there when the image of an impending horror is just a small aberration, a tiny injustice here or there. And invariably, in every circumstance, some of them realize what’s about to happen.
So here we are on the tenth anniversary of the first arrival of prisoners to the Guantanamo Bay detention camps. My government is well on its way to becoming one of those atrocity-committing states that future peoples will read about in history books. I truly am afraid that in 2112, someone will read about the actions of my country and my government over the next thirty years and say, “I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and stop America from doing all the horrible things it did!”
Apart from building a sad little gingerbread replica of Guantanamo Bay, I don’t have much to offer that future altruist. I don’t know how to persuade people to be reasonable, to value civil liberties, or to be legitimately concerned about the actions of their government.
But I will say one thing. When all the icing had dried, and the red food coloring pooled beneath my beaten gummi prisoner, the people at the gingerbread party really did take notice of my gingerbread atrocity. As poorly crafted as it was, it still evoked a visceral response in people. People thought about it. They commented on it. After the party, one guest even e-mailed me to ask for pointers to news about the NDAA.
And that may be the most interesting part of my gingerbread Guantanamo. It reminded me that we have had glimpses of the elusive future mechanism for averting atrocity. Art, no matter how trivial or poorly crafted, can have a powerful effect on people, and not just because it says something about the government or the world, but because it says something about the person who made it. When you make something like a gingerbread Guantanamo, all your friends know that the actions of your government really bother you. Maybe they feel that way, too. Maybe they’ll start thinking about it more. Maybe they’ll start acting on it more. Most importantly, maybe they’ll start expressing themselves, too.
That’s why I decided to post about my gingerbread Guantanamo. I know there are a lot of you out there who genuinely care about the state of the world. And I know every one of you can find some medium or means with which you can express that care and that concern to the people around you. Please consider trying.
My small expression of disgust at the current state of affairs didn’t start a chain reaction. It’s not going to change the world.