Let's call it the "Guantanamo Effect": You keep prisoners without regular trials, their innocence becomes probable, but meanwhile they have undergone traumatizing treatment way beyond anything you can feel comfortable with. The effect on yourself will be that your fear of the prisoners will increase. Their innocence will help you to identify with their lot. This will cause a very uncomfortable effect because at the same time you find yourself as one in whose names these prisoners have been abused.
So, on the one hand, you will suffer anger in their place and a frightening decline of confidence in the reality of justice and in your own society. But on the other hand, this identification will increase your fears concerning the prisoners that have been held under humiliating conditions. You imagine yourself in their place: and immediately you come to think that they will either break down after their release and be unable to fit into society afterwards. Or, as a more aggressive outcome, you will develop a new fear - you'll think they will feel a need to take revenge, they will run amok, and if not, they will be helpless wrecks, burdening society after their release even more than as prisoners.
So after having harmed them you will prefer to add grief on harm by keeping them in prison further or, if setting them free at all, by excluding them further. Your demands to render them trustworthy, after all, will become harder and harder, nothing will suffice. The better you can imagine how unjust it was to keep them locked in, the more you feel what they had to suffer from, the less will you be able to let them go.
So while you may be one of the more hopeful folks concerning the reintegration of prisoners, while you may be most liberal in offering aid to a real criminal who has been released after a proper time in jail, you might become hyterical, once a person is about to be set free whom has been held under substandard conditions and for no reason.
I suggest we call this sad effect of injustice on its executors the "Guantanamo effect." How can it be dealt with? How can one untrap first those who kept prisoners under unfair conditions, and then really untrap the prisoners themselves? You may say, well, most of them are just not innocent. This could be determined in regular trials.
Much more disturbing for Western society seems to be the problem of dealing with those who have been imprisoned without reason and without any chance to prove their innocence, resulting in severe consequences for the rests of their lives.
Wars against terror are wars about the hearts and souls of those who doubt Western values. When we observe that those who are imprisoned in totalitarian states are the people in the world whose desire for human rights is strongest, we will also have to admit that we are haunted by a terrible fear from those whom we keep as prisoners without reasons and depriving them of their basic rights - of our basic rights.
The idea to close Guantanamo was one of the best ideas in the present American government. Not only should it be seriously encouraged, we should also note the Guantanamo effect on ourselves - those who are responsible for holding innocent prisoners - is an innate danger for democratic action that should be met with self-critical awareness.
Generosity rather than anxiety towards those whom we have abused might deliver a very constructive chance to win the hearts of those whom we think we will have to fear as enemies because we treated them as enemies before they were enemies. Of course, I am talking about generosity towards our former prisoners.
This does, of course, not mean that we would not need a strong and consequent hand against those who take aggressive action against Western values and act tyranically against their own people as well. But it does mean that the West, if it wishes to reappear as the best advocate of liberty and civil rights, has to deal carefully with its own fears caused and increased by its own unjust deeds rather than by the dangerous actions of its suspects that have already been severely injured by "our" forces.
Dr Gesine Palmer is an author, speaker, and teacher of religion and politics.
Related Materials from the Atlantic-Community:
- Ulf Gartzke: Taking Gitmo Inmates Would be a Dangerous Gamble
- Tyson Barker: The Case for Germany First
- Matthew Yglesias: How to Repair our Relationship with Europe