Friday, May 8, 2009

End an enduring shame

Published: Thu, May. 07, 2009

The News Observer


End an enduring shame

By Patrick O'Neill


WASHINGTON -- Many of the tourists filing past the White House since Barack Obama's inauguration have been taken aback by the weekday sight of silent, orange jumpsuit-clad, black-hooded protesters standing on the sidewalk as a reminder to the president that approximately 240 men are still being detained at the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison.


When my daughters joined me Easter Monday morning to be part of the Catholic Worker 100-Days Campaign to Close Guantanamo, we donned our jumpsuits and hoods and proceeded slowly through Lafayette Park to take our positions along Pennsylvania Avenue. Children gawked in wonder, asking their parents why we were there. Hundreds of people took out their cameras to snap pictures of us. It was a solemn and shocking sight, but one Americans have come to associate with one of the worst of many terrible things carried out by the Bush administration since 9/11.


What was most surprising to me, however, was the number of people who walked by our line and asked aloud why we were there -- since Obama has already closed Guantanamo. Although he issued an executive order to close the prison in Cuba by Jan. 31, 2010, nothing has changed for the men still being held there, most of whom, according to Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, are innocent of any crimes. Last month, Wilkerson said fewer than two dozen of those who remain at Guantanamo can be considered a security risk, which means scores of innocent men remain in detention.


So great is their despair that approximately 50 detainees have been on a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention. About three dozen of these men are being force-fed through nasal tubes twice daily, a painful procedure.


The history of Guantanamo is arguably one of the moral low points of U.S. history. It is well documented that many of the men sent there were kidnapped from their homelands. Some were even bought with CIA ransom money, often despite a lack of evidence that any had engaged in terrorist activity. Hundreds of innocent men have already been released, and many told harrowing stories of abuse and torture.


The United States was once known for championing human rights, but the events at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan have changed all that. Under former President George W. Bush's rules, the U.S. aligned itself with some of the world's worst human rights violators. It's time for Obama to begin a process of restoring our nation's credibility.


Step One: Order the immediate release of the Uighurs (WEE-gurs), the 17 Chinese Muslims who have already been cleared for release from Guantanamo. Last September, U.S. authorities formally conceded that none of the Uighur detainees is an enemy combatant. In China, the Uighurs are among the most persecuted minority groups. They face possible torture, persecution and even death if they are repatriated.  Uighur families in the United States have agreed to provide resettlement assistance for the 17 men, yet the Obama administration has done nothing to correct this horrible injustice.


Step Two: Obama should allow groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch open access to all U.S. detention facilities to monitor conditions.


Obama has not allowed judicial oversight at Guantanamo. While in Washington, I visited Capitol Hill where an aide to Sen. Richard Burr who had visited the Guantanamo prison assured me that "harsh interrogations," as torture is often called, no longer take place at the prison. But how do we know that to be true? Many psychologists consider the fact that most of the Guantanamo detainees are being held in solitary confinement as torture.


Step Three: Obama should order an investigation into why detainees are on a hunger strike and take measures to improve conditions so these men will end their hunger strike .


Finally, Obama should immediately move the process forward that leads to the release of the innocent men the United States is detaining at all prisons.


I have no way of knowing whether Obama has been looking out the window of his new home and seeing the daily lineup of hooded protesters, but my hope is that his two daughters might have asked their father about those people standing on the sidewalk each day. We stand both as a reminder of the promises Obama has made and of the corrective action still not taken. It is my hope that he will do the right thing and reverse the shameful Bush legacy at Guantanamo.


Patrick O'Neill is co-founder of Garner's Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House, a pacifist, Christian community that provides hospitality to women and children in crisis. He can be reached at Garner Catholic Worker House, 124 Perdue St., Garner NC 27529 Ph 919 779 1912  E-mail: pmtoneill at




Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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