A man in Hollywood, Florida, got severely burned last week. Three Marine Corps representatives had driven up to bring him the news that his son had been killed at Najaf. Seeing them arrive, he ran to his garage, grabbed a can of gasoline, smashed the window of their van, doused its interior with the gas, and attempted to set it on fire, igniting himself in the process. The Marines pulled him from their burning van.
I don’t imagine that this man, Carlos Arredondo, consciously intended to make himself a metaphor for America’s involvement in Iraq, but that is what he did: Like him, we have run without rational purpose into a hopelessly violent situation, and succeeded only in further damaging our already wounded selves. This is the Bush administration’s idea of how to wage war on terrorism. Those of us who suspected Bush was lying back when he first spoke of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and its links to Al Qaeda can pride ourselves on our foresight, but that doesn’t improve matters, and it doesn’t relieve the U.S. military of having to send out delegations like the one that triggered Carlos Arredondo’s run for the gasoline can. Unless power changes hands in November, we are cursed with leaders whose only gift is for making our embattled situation worse.
While we ponder this miserable mess, the British theater has sent us a memo in the form of a documentary play called Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. It may not be the optimal gift for people in our state of affliction, but its arrival measurably clears the air. Knowing that it’s there, knowing that artists cared to make it, and made it with thoroughness and precision, means a great deal. It’s a way of opening a door that our theater has foolishly kept shut, for the most part, since the mid ’70s: Visible beyond the door is a conversation we should be having, nationally, about issues, principles, human rights, and human lives, that is itself a vista of freedom—one of the reasons that people love, or used to love, America.
Because Guantánamo, assembled by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo “from spoken evidence,” deals with the issues surrounding four British subjects held at our Cuban military base (two of whom were ultimately released), freedom is its principal topic as well as its essence. The freedom of public discourse that it represents finds a nightmarish antithesis in the position of the detainees, imprisoned in exposed eight-by-eight mesh cages infested by creatures like camel spiders as large as a man’s fist. Aside from erratic communication with their families through Red Cross observers, they have no visitors, apathetic medical care, and until the Supreme Court ruling of June 28, no legal recourse. Only now, years after most of them were imprisoned, are military tribunals, which even some Defense Department lawyers view as of dubious legality, beginning to hear the detainees’ cases; many still have no knowledge of what charges are leveled against them. Some 550 prisoners from 40 nations remain at Guantánamo, enduring harsh conditions and repeated bouts of what’s euphemistically called “forceful interrogation.”
The compilers and directors of Guantánamo (the latter are Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares) strive to arouse our sympathy for the detainees as individuals, presenting their stories as told in their own words or by their families and lawyers. Though unquestionably powerful, this strategy is less politically effective here, where the memory of 9-11 is less distant. Probably for London audiences, the show’s bitterest sting is its display of British intelligence and the British Foreign Office as patsies cringing before Washington’s bullying. Over here, the effect is vitiated slightly by our awareness that real terrorists and those who funnel money to them have the capacity to disguise themselves as precisely the kind of honest people we see onstage, who do harmlessly beneficent things like supplying water pumps to Afghan villages or operating peanut oil plants in Gambia. But the reality of terrorism is no excuse for throwing away the constitutional safeguards on which—for which—this country was founded.
In this regard, the most chilling examples for American audiences aren’t Guantánamo cases, but those of Yasir Hamdi and Jose Padilla. Like many of those still detained at Guantánamo, Hamdi and Padilla probably aren’t people you’d want to meet in a dark alley at midnight. But that’s not the point. The point is knowing that American citizens could be held incommunicado by our government, with no lawyer, no hearing, no formal charges, and only the vaguest display of evidence, for over two years. This happened to them, on grounds that now seem decidedly relative; there’s no reason to assume that it couldn’t happen to you, or to me, or to anyone Ashcroft decides to suspect, most particularly the thousands upon thousands of Muslims who came to America for economic betterment or, often, precisely to escape countries noted for their disregard of civil and juridical rights. Now, those things have become what America means to them, and to much of the rest of the world. If that’s the nation you want to live in, by all means vote for Bush. But maybe you should see Guantánamo before you decide. Crisply staged and often extremely well acted, it’s a lucid assemblage of undeniable facts that may do much to change your mind. Which won’t heal Carlos Arredondo’s burns, but might spare us the redoubled grief of countless parents in his situation.