Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman
First Parish/Brewster, MA
24 February 2008
Reading 1: Gospel of Matthew 25:31-40
‘When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and cloth thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me."’
Reading 2: excerpt from the dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928), written by US Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandreis
"In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means – to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal – would bring terrible retribution. Against that pernicious doctrine this court should resolutely set its face."
Sermon: A Cancer on Our Democracy: What I Saw in Guantanamo
In August of 2005 I spent five days at the United States Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I went there to interpret for two attorneys representing prisoners who are being held in our nation’s so-called "War on Terror." That trip earned me the distinction of being the first, and only, non-military clergy-person to meet and speak with prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. That experience has given me a unique insight into the experience of the prisoners in that facility and my study both in preparation for the trip and subsequent to it – as well as my reflections on all that I have seen and learned – has led me to the conclusion that the greatest threat facing our American democracy at this point in our nation’s history is posed not by foreign religious extremists who hate America, but rather by the fear-inspired policies and laws that have been adopted since September 11th, 2001 in the name of safe-guarding our nation.
The Guantanamo Bay prison is a blight on our nation’s image in the world, a stain on our country’s moral credibility, and a threat to the very democracy that the men and women of our nation’s military are honor bound, and risking their lives, to defend. I submit to you today that the Guantanamo prison is the visible manifestation of a secretive and cancerous growth within our democracy that is a threat to the principles of our political system, a threat to the foundations of our legal system, a threat to our national security, and a threat to the very moral fabric of our nation.
Before I go on, you should know this about two things about me. First, I believe in the "duck test": if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck . . . it’s a duck. And, friends, what I saw in Guantanamo is not a "facility" filled with "detainees," it’s a prison; your prison and my prison.
The facility that I saw under construction in 2005 by Kellogg, Brown, and Root – then, still, a subsidiary of Haliburton – is a state of the art prison, modeled on federal prisons in Florence, Colorado and Marion, Illinois, where we house the "worst of the worst" federal inmates. The same security measures that we apply to the most dangerous, violent, convicted felons in our nation are being used with the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The only difference is that no one in Guantanamo has been convicted of anything, and only 11 of the 290 remaining prisoners have even been charged with crimes . . . after six years.
The second thing that you should know about me is that I am a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, an Army veteran who served in Military Intelligence, was trained to read, write, and speak Arabic, and served an interpreter with a peacekeeping force in the Middle East. On September 11th, 2001, three members of the religious community I serve were in the north tower of the World Trade Center; two of them were father and son. Two men escaped the tower; 25 year old Todd Joseph Ouida was not one of them. I conducted his memorial service before his grief stricken father, one of the two survivors. The other survivor is Dwight Woodson, a member of this religious community, whose invitation to speak to the Human group here in Brewster made possible my visit. I live with the memory of September 11th everyday of my life. I assure you that my desire to both see those responsible for that attack and prevent another such tragedy on American soil is second to none. Because of that, I supported our nation’s military action in Afghanistan, as did nearly the entire international community.
But what I have seen done in our nation, and in our names, since then has left me outraged and fearful for the future of this great American democratic experiment. Friends, I see a nation that has lost its moral bearing and is at risk of becoming a caricature of a functioning democracy and a shadowy vision of some the very regimes that our nation has historically and – at times – heroically opposed. The policies that gave rise to, and the current laws that make legitimate, the prison in Guantanamo pose a far greater threat to our nation than any of the men currently being held in that facility in our names.
I hardly need recount the litany of reactivity here in America over the past six years: enactment of the USA Patriot Act; the creation of secret prisons around the world in which brutal, coercive interrogation techniques are sanctioned by our government; the kidnapping by our intelligence services of foreign nationals and their open-ended imprisonment without legal justification for their seizure or recourse to their detention; the creation of secret military tribunals, in which the accused sees neither their accusers nor the evidence against, the verdicts of which are unreviewable by our judicial system; unlawful, secret domestic wire-tapping; and the declaration of US citizens as "enemy combatants" . . . a hitherto unknown legal classification that our government has used to deny them the basic human, civil, and legal rights guaranteed to us by the constitution of this nation.
We have just learned in recent weeks that, with the passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, we are poised to begin the military tribunals of six foreign nationals for war crimes and our nation is seeking the death penalty in these cases. They are charged with war crimes, but we have denied – for years – that they are prisoners of war. They will go on trial at "Camp Justice" in Guantanamo. The very name of the place has the Orwellian ring of "double speak," when we consider the system it represents – prisoners seized for a bounty, held in secrecy without being charged, denied legal counsel, subjected to psychological manipulation and torture, and when their innocence is finally established they are quietly "repatriated" to "friendly" nations where "enhanced interrogation" and certain imprisonment awaits them.
778 men and boys have cycled through Guantanamo Bay over the last 6 years. 275 remain there today. 12 have been charged with crimes. One has pled guilty and been returned to his native Australia.
What troubles me most deeply is how far we have strayed, driven by fear and in the name of national security, from the values and ideals for which our great nation stands. For generations, America has led the way in advances the causes international law, civil rights, and human rights; we have championed individual liberty, fundamental fairness, and impartial justice in civil societies. The values and ideals are our birthright and our heritage.
In March of last year, I visited Cambodia. I felt compelled to visit the Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh; the Khmer Rouge’s most infamous interrogation and torture center. Of the estimated 12,000 prisoners who entered its gates, only seven – not 7,000 – seven survived.
The prison has been converted to a museum documenting the Khmer Rouge’s penchant for and methods of murder and torture. In one of the rooms I saw an large, inclined table with restraints at each corner. I did not need to see the museum’s sign explaining this device to recognize it as the primary instrument of waterboarding.
Moral outraged burned in the pit of my stomach as I confronted the fact that the use of torture methods employed by a brutal, criminal, genocidal regime would be regarded by the Vice President of my nation as a "no brainer." Friends, the part of our brains that we aren’t using when we endorse the use of waterboarding in interrogation is the part that dictates moral consciousness and basic human decency.
Our democratic system of checks and balances is neither checking the abuse of individuals and of power nor maintaining the balance of power between the branches of our government. The Military Commission Act, which was signed into law in October 2006, bestows unprecedented power on the executive branch of the government and fundamentally limits the power of the judicial branch. Rather than insist that our government abide by its own laws, we accept illegality in the name of security and amend our laws to make criminal acts policy.
This, friends, is precisely what Louis Brandeis warned us against in the reading you heard earlier. If, pacified by fear, we allow the government to violate our established standards of conduct and decency, then our very society is in peril. Founding father Benjamin Franklin’s words haunt me these days: "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither."
The executive branch of our government has twice declared US citizens (Yasir Hamdi and Jose Padilla) to be "enemy combatants" and imprisoned them in violation of their constitutional rights; the CIA killed another US citizen in Yemen (Ahmed Hijazi, 2002) with a Hellfire missile fired from a Pedator drone; and the US military charged a West Point graduate and Army chaplain (James Yee) serving at the Guantanamo prison with espionage. He was arrested, hooded, shackled, threatened with the death penalty, and held in solitary confinement for 76 days, without access to an attorney. When forced to present evidence in the case, the military quietly dismissed the charges and awarded the man a medal for his service.
Friends, US citizens have been and are being treated exactly the way we are treating the prisoners in Guantanamo. We have exported Guantanamo to Iraq – as the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison made clear – and imported it into the United States.
In March 2006 – and only by court order – our government finally began releasing the names of Guantanamo prisoners. But I didn’t need to read the list to know two names: Rafiq and Muhammad. These are the Tunisian men with whom I met. To the American public they are just objects in white, beige, or orange jump suits appearing on the evening news. But to me, they are subjects . . . they are husbands, brothers, sons, cousins. They are human beings. And the treatment to which they have been subjected is inhumane. They are confined in cages no larger than a generous walk-in closet in a suburban American home. When they leave their cells, they are shackled hand, foot, and waist. If they refuse to leave their cells for interrogation, they are "forcibly extracted" by a five man team of guards wearing protective gear and bearing riot shields. If they protest their open-ended imprisonment by going on hunger strike, they are restrained in chairs and force fed by having feeding tubes forced down their noses and into their stomachs. Friends, the animals in the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence are treated better than these men are and this is shameful . . . SHAMEFUL. When a hopeless, despairing prisoner in Guantanamo commits suicide, as three have now done, our government dismisses it as a propaganda ploy . . . an act of "asymmetrical warfare."
Muhammad knows the feeling of hopelessness and despair. Years ago, he fled the repressive government in Tunisia to make a better life in Europe. Unable to find a place for himself in western society – a familiar story, if you’ve been watching news of the civil unrest in France in recent years – he moved to Pakistan, where he started a honey business, and married. In the months following the US attack on Afghanistan, he was riding in a truck, on his way to buy medication for his wife, when he was arrested by Pakistani forces and sold to the Americans in Afghanistan for $5,000. He has a weak heart, kidney problems, and suffers from a number of chronic diseases, including malaria. By our government’s own account, they have no reason to believe he ever was or is now a threat to anyone. His interrogators figured out very quickly that Mohammad wasn’t a member of al-Qaida, wasn’t in the Taliban. But, they didn’t want to return him to Pakistan, nation where he was arrested, so they tried to "render" him to his native Tunisia, where he has been convicted in absentia, and will certainly be imprisoned, probably tortured, and possibly killed. His attorney successfully blocked this action in Federal Court in Puerto Rico last October. Mohammad is entering his sixth year of imprisonment in Guantanamo . . . arrested for a bounty, imprisoned on suspicion, never charged with a crime, and subjected to ruthless interrogation. This is unconscionable . . . and it is being done in our names.
But our government does not want you to know about Muhammad; doesn’t want you to know the details of his arrest and imprisonment. It certainly doesn’t want you to think of Mohammad as an innocent person, swept up in a rampage of revenge by the most powerful nation in the world. And it definitely, definitely, doesn’t want you to think about Mohammad as a valuable, unique human being, with hopes, fears, and rights . . . just like you and me.
You all know the symbol of justice in our country, right? It’s a woman wearing a blindfold holding the scales of justice in one hand. It is justice in this land which is supposed to be blind, not its citizens blind to injustice being perpetrated in their names. I’ll tell you justice isn’t blind in America today . . . she’s hooded, shackled, and held in solitary confinement with the attack dogs of extremism and fear snarling at her face and snapping at her heels . . . and in the faces and at the heels of any patriotic American who dares speak out for truth, fairness, and mercy in this land.
But seeing every other human being as unique and inherently worthy is precisely was Jesus was admonishing us to do in the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that you heard earlier. Whether it be by a dispenser of cosmic justice or by the unflinching eye of history, every nation will be judged for its actions . . . "Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."
And the measure of any society and its people will be its treatment of and regard for the most vulnerable of those in its charge . . . be they its sons or strangers, its daughters or its detainees. I think of Muhammad languishing in that prison, stripped of his human dignity, ailing and alone in a cell and the words of the Gospel whisper in my heart, ‘Lord, when . . . did we see thee naked and cloth thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee? And the King will answer them, ". . . as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me."’
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is our prison; your prison and my prison. All that has been done in that prison has been done in our names. And I, for one, cannot accept this any longer. Not in my name.
We face a moral turning point in our nation’s history; we will either excise the disease that is spreading from Guantanamo and threatening our American way of life or we will succumb as a society to its ravages and the American way of life as we know it will die. As patriotic citizens and people of faith, we must demand the immediate closure of the Guantanamo prison and insist that the sterilizing light of open and public examination be brought to bear not just on the prison itself, but on the policies and persons that have allowed this facility to exist. The future of our nation, and all for which it stands, is at stake.