“Raise your hand,” I tell my ninth grade history class, “if you’ve heard of Guantanamo.”
A few hands inch upward, but most of the students keep their hands rooted to their desks. No one has ever talked to them about what the United States did—and is doing—in Guantanamo Bay, on the southeast corner of Cuba.
But it’s a conversation we ought to have. In the months since the Parkland shooting and subsequent displays of activism calling for an end to gun violence, teenagers have been proving that they have the capacity to start stitching together our nation’s broken seams, if only we’ll let them.
So I teach my students about Guantanamo, where the U.S. government has maintained a naval base for decades, against Cuba’s wishes. It’s where, in early 2002, we built a prison for alleged terrorists that once held nearly 800 men and children, all Muslim, ranging from possible 9/11 plotters to goat-herders whose neighbors falsely identified them as al Qaeda members in exchange for a $5,000 bounty from the United States.
And then I tell them the specific stories of two innocent men who were tortured there.
I met Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir in 2011, a few years after they won their freedom from Guantanamo. A federal judge had reviewed the supposed evidence against them in 2008 and determined that the government had no basis to lock them up. Lakhdar and Mustafa had gotten their day in court, and weeks later they were free.
The problem, however, was that getting their day in court took Lakhdar and Mustafa the better part of seven years. They had to take their case, Boumediene v. Bush, all the way to the Supreme Court just to get the right to argue their case before a federal judge. Even though the Constitution grants that right, known as habeas corpus, to everyone detained on American soil, the Bush administration argued that Guantanamo doesn’t count because the facility is technically only rented from the Cuban government.
The government’s attempt to circumvent habeas corpus—to build a prison outside the reach of the law—very nearly succeeded. Had it not been for a law firm’s willingness to spend 35,000 hours on Lakhdar and Mustafa’s case—work that would have cost paying clients $17.5 million—they would likely still be in Guantanamo. Lakhdar’s eldest daughter would still be writing letters to her wrongly imprisoned father, and his two youngest children would never have been born.
The tragedy of Lakhdar and Mustafa’s case is not just that they were wrongly held for seven years, but also what was done to them during that time. In the early months of Guantanamo, while the prison was still being built, they were held outside in scorpion-infested cages with gym mats to sleep on and buckets to use instead of toilets. Once the prison was built and interrogations began, they were subjected to brutal beatings for refusing to confess to crimes they didn’t commit or testify against men they didn’t know. They suffered from systematic sleep deprivation—Lakhdar was kept awake for more than two weeks straight—as well as threats of sodomy, assaults on their religion, and the fear, provoked by interrogators, that they would never see their families again.
When journalist Jake Tapper of CNN asked Lakhdar in a 2009 interview if he thought he had been tortured, Lakhdar replied, “I don’t think. I’m sure.”
And yet, remarkably, Lakhdar and Mustafa did not let their experience break them. I had the honor of helping them write a book about their ordeal, Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantanamo. Getting to know these men and their stories was moving and deeply inspiring. They somehow endured years of unjust imprisonment and torture, yet never lost the capacity to be fundamentally decent and kind.
I share Lakhdar and Mustafa’s stories with my students in part because I think everyone can learn from their resilience and grace, but also because I think all Americans should know what our country has done and to whom. Whether my students agree with President Donald Trump that Guantanamo should remain open and be “load[ed] up” with more prisoners is, of course, up to them. But I want them to pay close attention to the facts so they can evaluate the arguments for themselves and arrive at fully informed conclusions. Decisions about the future of human rights in America should not be made by default. We cannot let Guantanamo, and the people we imprison there, go unseen.
Shortly after Witnesses was published in April 2017, Lakhdar was asked in an interview what he wanted readers to take away from his book. “I want Americans to know,” he answered, “that Guantanamo happened not to monsters, but to men.” Days later, I came across this eloquent reply on Twitter:
“WHO FUCKING CARES?”
It’s easy to dismiss that as the heartless rant of a Twitter troll, which it is. But it’s also official U.S. policy: Lakhdar and Mustafa have never received an apology or even an explanation from the American government, let alone compensation. Not a single former detainee has.
Forty men remain in Guantanamo right now, “forever prisoners” who may never have a meaningful opportunity to argue their innocence. Polling suggests that more than half of Americans are content to continue with business-as-usual in Guantanamo. For the most part Americans just look away, in part because of the media maelstrom that is the Trump era, and in part because it’s so much easier. Our collective blindness protects us from truths we might not be able to handle and problems too painful to face.
It also prevents us from solving them.
We can no longer afford to look away, if ever we could. As engaged citizens in a fragile democracy, we need to be vigilantly, persistently attentive. Perhaps now more than ever, it’s critical that we don’t treat “WHO FUCKING CARES” as a rhetorical question.
I fucking care. And I hope you do too.
Dan Norland is a high school history teacher at La Jolla Country Day School in San Diego, California. Together with Kathleen List and Jeff Rose, he helped Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir share the story of their wrongful imprisonment in their joint memoir, Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantanamo. A version of this essay originally appeared in Teen Vogue.