We know the pattern.  Terrorists attack.  The public recoils in horror.  Fear rules.  Politicians boast that they are doing everything possible to prevent another tragedy.  With tough-guy talk, they explain that the rights of the accused and the civil liberties of all must yield to national security.  And in fear, or in haste, things are done that neither enhance security nor honor the democratic values in whose name terrorism is fought.

We see this script playing out again in the United States, even without an assault targeting Americans.  Following the Paris attacks, an ugly debate on refugees from civil war and terrorism itself — choked with xenophobia and intolerance — has trumped consideration of how to fend off ISIS, while preserving American principles.  Meanwhile, our nation still struggles under the weight of decisions made after 9/11, like the opening of a torture camp at Guantanamo in January 2002.


I have spent nearly every Thanksgiving enjoying a feast with my family.  But this year I’m in Cuba, fasting at the gates of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo and calling for the detention camp to close.

Fourteen of us have come to Guantanamo to keep vigil in solidarity with the men inside the prison.  As we feel hunger, we know that some of the prisoners are still hunger striking in protest of their detention without charge or trial.  One man, Tariq Ba Odah, last ate a proper meal in 2007.  Only the barbaric practice of forced-feeding has kept him alive, but just barely.  He currently weighs 74 pounds.

As we miss our loved ones at home, we know that the prisoners have been torn from their families for more than a decade.  The vast majority of the 107 men still Guantanamo have never been charged with crimes.  Forty-eight have been cleared for release by the US government but still wait to be sent to their home country or other societies that will welcome them.  They ache with the pain of separation from their families.

How can Americans come to Guantanamo, in compassion for the detainees, while the world reels from Isis attacks?  Now, more than ever, it is important that we are here. Guantanamo has never been, as the Bush administration claimed, a prison for the “worst of the worst.”  The tiny number of men charged with serious crimes can be safely held in federal prisons and tried in proper courts.  Holding men without charge or trial does nothing to make America more secure.  In fact, it makes America less safe. 

For years we have been told that Guantanamo remains a powerful recruiting tool for terrorist organizations, who denounce American hypocrisy.  This is no mere talking point of advocates for closing the prison.  It is made most loudly by the US military.  Isis dresses those it executes in orange jumpsuits in a macabre echo of the uniform initially given Guantanamo detainees.  Nothing justifies Isis depravity.  It is naïve, however, to deny that American conduct has sown distrust of the United States, radicalized by terrorists.

But perhaps the greatest threat of terrorism is what we do to ourselves.  In Guantanamo, America has violated its laws, treaty obligations, and basic standards of decency and fair play.  The prison is the bitter legacy of a misguided and often vengeful reaction to past terrorism we have yet to fully confront.

America faces again the threat of over-reaction.  Prejudice against Muslims rages, while politicians seek to deny refuge to orphans.  Fools like Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE talk of bringing back torture by waterboarding. 

So today I am in Cuba to peer at the barbed-wired scene of a horrendous injustice.  I sit and fast.  I reflect on the stories of men who have been turned into caricatures of evil.

As I think of all the families at dinner tables carving turkey, many of whom will surely discuss the Syrian refugee crisis and responses to attacks in Beirut, Paris, and Mali, I hope they remember the cautionary tale of Guantanamo: a prison erected in the name of security which still bleeds with disgrace and added danger to Americans.  I’m grateful to be here to remind my country what our reckless hatreds do to ourselves and others.

Varon is a professor of History at The New School in New York City and a member of Witness Against Torture.