Guantanamo: ‘If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down’

Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay Indefinite Detention Center, January 2012
Blind Willie Johnson had it right back in 1927 when he sang, “If I had my way, I’d tear this building down.” The U.S. concentration camps on Guantanamo Bay turn 10 years old on Wednesday. As Americans — and as people of faith — we should tear those buildings down.

I’m not naive about who some of the prisoners are being held there. But if there’s one thing the U.S. does extremely well, it’s prisons. We’ve got lots of them. There’s no reason why the men and boys held at Guantanamo can’t be moved into stateside prisons – military or civilian – and held accountable under a clear rule of law.

I want to be part of the civilian team of Americans — with families of international victims — who come to Guantanamo this year with hammers in our hands. It is time to dismantle these concentration camps.

Read below for Abraham’s haggling with God about punishing the innocent with the guilty and further down read Murat Kurnaz’ reflections five years after his release from Guantanamo.

Abraham approached the Lord and asked, “Are you really going to destroy the innocent with the guilty? If there are fifty innocent people in the city, will you destroy the whole city? Won’t you spare it in order to save the fifty? Surely you won’t kill the innocent with the guilty. That’s impossible! You can’t do that. If you did, the innocent would be punished along with the guilty. That is impossible. The judge of all the earth has to act justly.” –Genesis 18:23-25

I left Guantánamo Bay much as I had arrived almost five years earlier – shackled hand-to-waist, waist-to-ankles, and ankles to a bolt on the airplane floor. My ears and eyes were goggled, my head hooded, and even though I was the only detainee on the flight this time, I was drugged and guarded by at least 10 soldiers. This time though, my jumpsuit was American denim rather than Guantánamo orange. I later learned that my C-17 military flight from Guantánamo to Ramstein Air Base in my home country, Germany, cost more than $1 million.

When we landed, the American officers unshackled me before they handed me over to a delegation of German officials. The American officer offered to re-shackle my wrists with a fresh, plastic pair. But the commanding German officer strongly refused: “He has committed no crime; here, he is a free man.”

I was not a strong secondary school student in Bremen, but I remember learning that after World War II, the Americans insisted on a trial for war criminals at Nuremberg, and that event helped turn Germany into a democratic country. Strange, I thought, as I stood on the tarmac watching the Germans teach the Americans a basic lesson about the rule of law.

How did I arrive at this point? This Wednesday is the 10th anniversary of the opening of the detention camp at the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. I am not a terrorist. I have never been a member of Al Qaeda or supported them. I don’t even understand their ideas. ….

… a number of American and German intelligence documents from 2002 to 2004 [that] showed both countries suspected I was innocent. One of the documents said American military guards thought I was dangerous because I had prayed during the American national anthem.

Now, five years after my release, I am trying to put my terrible memories behind me. I have remarried and have a beautiful baby daughter. Still, it is hard not to think about my time at Guantánamo and to wonder how it is possible that a democratic government can detain people in intolerable conditions and without a fair trial.

New York Times (8 January 2012) Notes from a Guantanamo Survivor by Murat Kurnaz

Mural at Christ in the Desert Monastery

The mural above is found in the refectory at Christ in the Desert Benedictine monastery near Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Rubilev's Trinity

Based on Rubilev’s famous Trinity icon, it depicts the Sarah and Abraham welcoming the three angel guests at the Oak of Mamre.

“The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day”–Genesis 18:1

In the center of the Christ in the Desert mural is a large scale version of the Rubilev’s icon of the Trinity, represented by three angels, seated at table.

To the viewer’s right is Sarah and to the viewer’s left is Abraham. Behind Abraham is St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Juan Diego, Mary, and the Burning Bush.

Behind Sarah is St. Scholastica, St. Clare, Blessed Kateri Tekatwitha, St. John the Baptist, and an “Agnus Dei” representation.

California activist-theologian reflects on “Abraham under the ‘teaching oak’” saying:

The real plot of the Bible is about the liberation of both humanity and nature from our folly. God’s voice does not come through the centre of civil power but from an imperial defector in Moses, through a burning bush and from a dissident prophet Elijah in the wilderness. These ancient traditions portray a God who needs to be encountered through nature. The Bible also offers numerous peons to creation as a mirror of the creator’s glory. There is a lot of talk these days about our need to rediscover enchantment in nature. Let us take Abraham’s first encounter
with God which occurred under the oak tree of Moreh, an “oracle giver” which taps into an apparently universal tradition of the Tree of Life. Then God appears to Abraham as certain strangers under the oaks of Mamre; and later in Judges, the warrior Gideon is given courage by an angel under the oak at Ophrah.

At Christ in the Desert monastery the electricity and water-pumping at the monastery is solar-powered, as sunshine is plentiful throughout the year.

The mural art reflects a tradition now set in the context of the Chama Canyon wilderness in northwestern New Mexico, but the monks whose quiet cenobitic lives are shaped daily by the art also vitalize the mural through their own daily desert encounters with angels, trees, rivers, saints, bread, wine, work, and surprise.