I have just arrived in Guantánamo Bay, on my first attorney-client visit for a year.
On one level it's easier to converse with prisoners these days -- we have held them so long that many speak American English -- but on another, we lawyers have been reduced to little more than glorified pizza-deliverymen to the forgotten and inconvenient. What on earth can I tell these men?
The camp has changed a lot since I first touched down in 2007. A Saab executive plane flies in lieu of the leaky propellor job (whose airline folded). The visitors' lodge, once a $14-a-night summer camp barracks, could be a Best Western off any interstate: rooms cost $50 and come pre-chilled to seventy Fahrenheit and boasting an espresso maker, Wi-Fi and two flat-screen TVs.
Outside, the military base drones on. There is a PR wing somewhere but most locals seem cheerfully numb to world opinion. While the tenth anniversary of the camp's opening has passed, some of my clients will mark their personal decade here, without fanfare, this month.
One formerly-young man I will see was seized at 21 years old; he is now 31 and realizes, of course, that the 21-year-olds who guard him were schoolchildren when he arrived. Another had a son born in February 2002, who is now in school himself and knows nothing of his father.
I have been visiting long enough to see the relationship between lawyers and the camp administration fizzle from crackling hostility to genial disinterest. Official indifference extends not just to us but to our overall effort to extract their captives. Today, save a scant few slated for military commission -- my clients are not -- the military pays most prisoners little notice. It simply buses their 'habeas' lawyers in and out.
At Gitmo even the word 'habeas' is denuded of meaning. It's a nickname for an odd, sad class of person: here I am 'habeas' the way you might be 'British' or 'vegetarian' or 'in marketing.' It is not clear who here knows it refers to the Great Writ of habeas corpus, once the pride of a liberty-loving people, bequeathed us by our tricorne-hatted forefathers, who themselves learned it from the (presumably) pelt-wearing English of 1215. Thus we 'habeas' are glorified deliverers of pizza.
So what can I tell these prisoners? It is one thing to visit a caged man with hot food and an idea two, three, even five times. It is another to do it on the other side of the first black president; a broken promise to close his prison in a year; and the courts shutting him out for a fourth time.
Sure, I have ideas in a case or two. But I fear they will earn a laugh, a bitter retort. What is the point, they will say.
Perhaps after the election, I will say. Perhaps when your home dictatorship is overthrown -- or we overthrow it -- and we want to befriend the new guys. Perhaps when there is a Latino president who normalizes relations with Cuba. Or a Japanese-American whose grandparents were interned. Perhaps when it is a woman. Perhaps then they will dust off their files, remember that they meant to send you home in 2006 but somehow never quite got there, and put you on a plane.
And then maybe, I can say, maybe in thirty years you and your children may receive an official apology. When those who saw in you a scarecrow to keep others afraid and themselves in power are dead, some statesman will come along and tell your family we are sorry; that this was an un-American episode; that these were not our values after all. I just hope these prisoners live to see it.