When you visit the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay as a journalist, you're supposed to write about the McDonald's.
The McDonald's means one of two things: It is either proof that Guantanamo Bay isn't the evil place all the human-rights activists said it was, or it is the ultimate symbol of the banality of evil, the way life goes on even in the presence of something intolerable. If you don't feel like looking for a deeper meaning, it's merely the way the military offers comforting junk food to personnel deployed on the base.
The extent to which the McDonald's makes you feel guilty probably has to do with how much it invokes the mental barriers against thinking about what the American government does to Keep Us Safe. As a visitor, I prepared myself psychologically to see something terrible at Guantánamo Bay. But right from the start, it wasn't as rugged as I thought it was going to be. I had imagined flying there with a few people on a military cargo plane -- instead I traveled with a large group of military personnel, translators, and lawyers on a Delta plane with leather seats and lots of legroom. The terminal at Guantanamo Bay resembles one at a regular airport, except it's outside. It still has interminably long, confusing lines. The walls are covered in slogans -- only instead of selling exotic vacation destinations, they say things like "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom." I even lost some of my luggage.
For a journalist, the Gitmo experience can best be described as bizarro summer camp. In fact, the media center is located in a large area dubbed "Camp Justice" -- a heavy-handed attempt to make the circumstances (in this case, the indefinite detention of people on mere suspicion of a crime) more palatable, like slathering ketchup on cold scrambled eggs. A set of military tents are cooled by large, rumbling air -- conditioning units. Across from an airplane hangar is a high-security court facility ringed by a fence covered in opaque green dressing and crowned with barbed wire. It was built to house the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the other September 11 defendants and may still fulfill its purpose should the administration reverse the decision to try them in civilian court.
We were almost always accompanied by one of the gregarious public-affairs officers who were essentially our camp counselors. There were tents equipped with showers, but the military personnel warned us not to use the water there to brush our teeth. Journalists who missed meals while working to meet a deadline could order from Pizza Hut or Subway, but otherwise we piled into one of the large Ford vans, which took us elsewhere on the base for jerk chicken or Mongolian barbeque or perhaps a drink at the Tiki Bar or O'Kelly's Irish Pub. I was surprised by how quickly I acquiesced to the ground rules -- no wandering off without a counselor. I was, however, allowed to go running by myself, comfortable in the knowledge that I know how to put my hands on my head just in case I was stopped.
This being my first trip to Guantánamo, one of the questions the public-affairs officers asked me was whether this was "what I expected." Conscious of the reputation of Guantánamo as the world's most infamous prison (excuse me, detention camp), the civilian and military personnel who work there retain the polite defensiveness of people who are used to getting bad press but don't think they deserve it. As one service member put it, "I'm not a supporter of the Iraq War and some things that have gone on under presidents past. But Uncle Sam said, 'Go here and do your duty,' and so that's what I'm going to do; it doesn't matter what the circumstances are."
He added, "I don't agree with everything, but it's not as bad as I thought it would be." That is exactly what journalists are supposed to take away from their tightly controlled tour. Five years ago, when reporter Spencer Ackerman visited Camp Five, there was a triangle-shaped interrogation room at the end of a cellblock. Interrogators once sat at a table in the room, while a detainee was shackled to the floor and sat in a small wooden chair. Now it?s the TV room. In place of the wooden chair is a soft recliner. Instead of a table for interrogators there is a wood entertainment center. On top of a coffee table lay copies of an Arabic newspaper and USA Today. It would look like an oddly austere living room if it weren't for the lack of natural light -- and the shackles still attached to the concrete floor. For all of Obama?s promises of change, this is about as different as things have gotten for detainees at Guantánamo.
The non-detainees at Guantánamo Bay live relatively normal lives -- the children of service members attend school, bored Navy traffic cops stop any driver who dares to creep above 30 miles per hour, military personnel gather at O'Kelly's to chug liters of beer. Discharged service members return to Guantánamo as contractors, happy to no longer be dodging bullets or improvised explosive devices. One reporter on the trip said he felt like he was in "Alabama or something." I remember his remark because I felt guilty -- after about a day or so, I realized I was enjoying myself, not just when I was writing but when I was listening to veteran reporters and soldiers share war stories while I sipped glasses of Jameson.
And that's the thing about Gitmo. The presence of a few of America's capitalist hallmarks -- the McDonald's, the bars, the movie theater -- are more than just amenities offered to servicemen on many foreign military bases. Essentially, they are the same getaway vehicles non-enlisted Americans use to remove themselves from the ugly realities of war.
Civil libertarians are now beginning to oppose the Obama administration's plan to move the detainees at Guantanamo to a prison facility in Thomson, Illinois, because it would move the paradox of Gitmo a little closer to home. Republicans oppose the facility's closure for political reasons. Both groups recognize the totemic power of Gitmo, and the strength of Americans' desire to keep the shame at arm's length.
Of course, America can't escape what Guantanamo is -- not by moving it north and not by keeping it off American soil?because Gitmo is already a part of us. The McDonald's isn't a symbol of the banality of evil, and it isn't proof that evil isn't present.
It just means welcome to the USA.