The 5 Most Unexpected Things About Life at Guantanamo Bay
I was stationed at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center ("Gitmo") several years ago. My job wasn't to interrogate terror suspects or guard them -- I'm a psychiatric professional, and I gave terrorists (both real and alleged) the best care I could deliver.
Now, the words "Guantanamo Bay" probably provoked one of two images in your mind: a torture camp run by brutal, cackling guards, or a real-life Arkham Asylum, filled with freedom's most nefarious nemeses. Either way, you're wrong. I was there, and I can tell you that ...
The Terrorists Aren't What You'd Expect
As psychiatric professionals, we weren't informed about what had landed these dudes in Gitmo (Wikipedia actually has way more info on their backstories than anyone ever handed me). From conversations over my tour, I gathered that a lot of them had been busted in some sort of terrorist training camp. But right away, you'd be shocked at how smart -- and educated -- most of the detainees are. A lot of them have master's degrees, a few even have doctorates. Many of them speak better English than most Americans. As one of my patients quipped, "All the dumb ones got killed already."
You'd be surprised at the life insurance premiums for "violent insurgency."
And some -- some -- of them are downright friendly. These dudes are smart, they believe they're in the moral right, and they carry that morality through in their actions with other people. These are the detainees you'll talk about sports with. There's a big social stigma for them about talking to a shrink, so you have to get them talking as long as you can about whatever and try to gauge their mental state. We try not to have political arguments with our patients, but it happens, and these guys are more articulate about what they believe than, say, Cobra.
But otherwise, the folks who have been detained for five, six, eight years have probably been out of the whole terrorist/freedom fighter lifestyle for longer than they were ever in it. They're just not the same people they were. Gitmo has a library, and its most popular fiction books are by Danielle Steel. If you're not familiar with Ms. Steel, here's one of her contributions to Western literature:
With a cover like that, you don't really need text.
So when they weren't reading the news or serious works of Muslim scholarship, the imprisoned, implacable foes of freedom and democracy indulged in romance novels for middle-aged housewives. Some of the detainees had the good sense to be embarrassed by this, so they'd ask us to wrap their wordy smut in a National Geographic to hide it from view. This isn't to say that no one wanted that magazine for its own merits. Once a guy asked, "Hey, in National Geographic I hear they have ... boobs, yes?"
They sure do, buddy, they sure do.
The detainees were also really into those children's Zoobooks magazines, I guess for the same reason people on the Internet love cat pictures.
Camp Life Isn't What You'd Expect, Either
These guys aren't soldiers in the conventional sense, and they don't have a traditional military hierarchy. But you've got the guy on the block who is kind of the head honcho, the one everybody respects. And a lot of times a guard will approach him and ask him to talk to a disobedient dude during recess, or whatever.
Oh yeah, we do recess. They like the shit out of basketball and soccer.
Pretend we know enough about soccer to make a joke here.
And before you get outraged by the idea of these guys having recreation, every prison works this way -- you have something you can give or withhold from inmates based on how much they cooperate. So, the most compliant guys all live in a communal area where they can grow tomatoes and play foosball and live something closer to a normal life. A lot of them are very close and refer to each other as brothers -- if someone has a medical problem but refuses to talk to us, it's often his friends who'll tell us about it so he can get treatment.
But then you have stories like how guards are denying detainees water bottles, which came up on the evening news and in the National Geographic Gitmo documentary. Well, I was there when that documentary was getting made and wound up on scene the first time we stopped giving them bottled water. You probably don't think about a bottle of water this way, but if you fill it with sand, you can make a baton, or just throw it at somebody's goddamn face. So yes, "guards deny inmates bottled water" makes for an inflammatory headline, but the whole story is more complicated than a bunch of guards twirling their standard-issue mustaches and dangling water above some parched inmate's cracked and bleeding throat.
Truly villainous mustaches fell with the Iron Curtain.
It's not that life at Gitmo is a relaxing tropical vacation; it's just that accusations of mistreatment are usually more complicated than they first appear. For instance, ever hear of the Manchester Document? It's a handbook for terrorists found in a raid on a house in England, translated and posted online by the Justice Department as part of a court case. Along with reading like the manual for an unusually dark video game, the handbook advises claiming that you were tortured in the event of capture.
I'm not saying torture never happens or happened: It totally has. But just as you absolutely shouldn't believe whatever the military says just because they've got fancy medals and nice-looking uniforms, you also have to remember that the dudes detained in Gitmo have an agenda, too. Some of them are innocent, some of them have reformed, and some of them are violent assholes with a lot of blood on their hands. Skepticism is healthy, but make sure you're skeptical of both sides.
Internet rules here, people. Trust no one.
Yes, It Gets Ugly
Don't let me make it sound like all of these guys were pals. They were inmates, we were the people detaining them. Some of them wanted revenge. For instance, every door has a slot that opens. You hand in their Motrin, they grab your hand and drop down -- boom, broken arm. And then there are the ones who will intentionally infect you.
"C'mon, man, sneeze."
These guys come from across the world to Cuba, loaded with foreign pathogens while simultaneously vulnerable to all of our gross shit. So already it was mutual, unconscious biological warfare (they had a distinct edge, because the Taliban apparently agrees with Jenny McCarthy on vaccines). These dudes wind up with tuberculosis, dysentery, hepatitis ... all kinds of terrible bugs, which means you don't want to exchange bodily fluids with them. But that's not so simple, because the inmates know this is what you're afraid of.
See, they know they're loaded with sicknesses we don't have, so a lot of times they'll try to cough on you. Those are the lucky times. The unlucky times involve what we call a cocktail: semen, blood, urine, and feces in a cup that they throw on you. We had one guy get cocktailed, and speculation on what he did ranged from "he insulted Islam" to, literally, "he made fun of a detainee's mom." Whatever happened, the detainees straight up told us, "Every time this guy comes back, we're going to make your life hell."
So we removed him. Nobody wanted to deal with cleaning that up every day.
"Anybody got a bucket of sawdust?"
And yes, someone attempted to cocktail me once. I avoided it only because I was warned ... by another detainee, one who liked me. He saw the dude across the row about to throw it and yelled, ", look out!" I ducked on instinct, and the mess hit the wall behind me. That detainee's warning was all that stood between me and half an alphabet's worth of hepatitis.
And no, I wasn't just being paranoid about catching diseases that way -- one guy in my unit got cocktailed and got sick. I have no idea what happened to him, but he was immediately removed from the island. I'm guessing it was not good news for the bulk of his organs.
"I'm sorry, sir, but your AIDS has gonorrhea."
We Were Always Being Watched
As I mentioned earlier, every new allegation of abuse, real and bullshit, draws the eyes of the world on a pretty regular basis, as it should. But that makes this job the psychiatric equivalent of performing nightly on the Las Vegas strip. Every medical decision we made was (and still is) monitored by the Red Cross. And the eyes of the world were on us -- every mistake was a potential international scandal.
Less than 12 percent of baristas are monitored by the ACLU.
Our superiors knew this, so something as simple as handing out acetaminophen to someone prescribed Motrin could land us in serious trouble. We had to document every conversation we had, and God forbid you marked something down wrong. One of my co-workers got busted for "gundecking," which means he marked down that he'd spoken to a detainee but their records showed he hadn't. The guy maintained his innocence, but that didn't protect him from "non-judicial punishment," aka a captain's mast (the Navy equivalent of a trial by judge). Back in the states, my co-worker wouldn't have gotten worse than a talking to, but because we were in Cuba, he wound up demoted and put on half-pay times two (his salary was cut in half for two months).
Oh, and he got shipped back home. That's how thin the line is, because every journalist on Earth gets half an erection at the suggestion of a fuckup. Again, the scrutiny is earned, but it just makes it difficult, since I was a medical professional there to keep these guys mentally healthy. And that isn't exactly easy -- these are terrorists or accused terrorists who have been locked up for years, long enough to have read every book in our library twice.
Oddly enough, they didn't even finish playing this once.
One of my patients distrusted everyone, including the people giving him his necessary-to-survive medication. So you'd have to show him the bag, slowly open it, take the pill out, and set it down in front of him. Then he'd take the pill and put it in his mouth. Our whole goal during that time was to get him to realize our job was just to keep him healthy. We didn't want anything else from him. Weeks went by, and I came in one day to start our daily pill dance, only to have him stop me. He said "no no" and just held out his hand, meaning none of the other stuff was necessary. I didn't hang any banners from the deck of an aircraft carrier, but that felt like a pretty big victory to me.
Another guy had a habit of smearing his body with feces on a near-daily basis. Maybe that seems like crazy-person behavior, but it's actually something you see in abused kids who don't want their parents to touch them. We were able to earn a small amount of this guy's trust and eventually change the behavior by spending a lot of time with him in an utterly unthreatening way: hanging out and watching movies. He loved Jackie Chan. Whenever I walked by, he'd say, "Hey man, you have more Jackie Chan?" (He called Rush Hour "Jackie Chan and the Movie," which was less endearing.)
But hey, at least he was a fan.
The point is, all of this probably sounds utterly insane to someone who wasn't actually there -- keep that in mind before making any judgments. But that just comes down to the big controversy surrounding the camp: "Why not just close it down?"
Closing the Camp Isn't as Easy as You Think
Obama's first election happened while I was stationed at Gitmo. The detainees were psyched, and they kept asking, "Is Obama going to set us free?" He had promised to close the facility in a year, and obviously that didn't happen. I had come to like a lot of the detainees, and it was heartbreaking to see how hard they took it. We lost a lot of their trust, and that sense of betrayal wound up snowballing into the hunger strike you may have read about on your Facebook feed.
Or seen on posters held by angry people on the news.
But the truth is, as President Obama learned, "close Gitmo now" is easier said than done (and note that I happen to agree -- Gitmo should be closed. Its very existence makes more enemies than just not having it).
Think about it -- what can we do with these guys? Even if all of those repatriation issues fade away and, say, the Bahamas elects to take all the "safe" detainees, what do we do with the ones we can't release? Do we transfer them to American prisons? Two guesses as to what happens when we dump some poor bearded Afghan dude in lockup and tell his guards and fellow prisoners, "This fella's a terrorist."
Hint: it will not make these people happy.
Yes, quite a few detainees are either innocent or pose no continuing threat. Some were just conscripts who were drafted into the cause, and a lot of the rest saw their motivation disappear after several years in prison. Basic logic dictates that these people need to be released. But do you have any idea what a clusterfuck that actual process can be? Take the case of these two Algerian detainees who didn't want to go home because their status as former Gitmo inmates made them a target.
And on the other end of the spectrum, some of these men can't be released because they're fucking dangerous. The detainee recidivism rate is at 29 percent and rising. That means many or even most of the folks we let go have no desire to hurt anyone, but enough of them do that we have to be very careful about who we set free. The attack on Benghazi may have been planned by a former inmate, for example.
In other words, the margin of error here is measured in explosions.
So yeah, keeping all of these guys locked up is stupidly unfair, but it's not as simple as letting them all go. And that's why, for the time being, Gitmo isn't going anywhere.
Related Reading: Speaking of stuff that's different than you'd expect it to be, get the real scoop on mental institutions. Life is also a lot different (and smellier) on a submarine. We've also talked to an escaped Scientologist and a survivor of the secret troubled teen industry.