VILLAIN or HERO? Ariel Castro, Charles Ramsey and Guantanamo Bay

abc_charles_ramsey_jef_130508_wblogGitmo prisoner“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them;
those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
Hebrews 13:3 (NRSV)

After all the bad news we’ve been struggling with over the past several weeks, what a breath of fresh air to hear that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight of Cleveland, Ohio, missing for over a decade, were found alive and restored to their families![1] According to initial reports, the three young women survived more than ten years of confinement, torture and repeated rape at the hands of Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, homeowner, and longtime resident of the Cleveland neighborhood where the young women were found.

A neighbor, Charles Ramsey became an overnight hero when he heard Amanda’s desperate screams for help and went next door to Ariel’s house of horrors to help her get out, along with her fellow prisoners.[2] Both Charles and the neighbors were shocked by the revelation of this “dark side” of their trusted, and seemingly ordinary neighbor. In the plainspoken words of Charles Ramsey:

I barbecue with this dude. We eat ribs and whatnot, listen to salsa music, you see where I’m coming from? Not a clue that that girl was in that house, or anybody else was in there against their will… You got to have some big testicles to pull this off bro, ‘cause we see this dude everyday. I mean everydayHe’s somebody you look, then look away. He’s not doing anything, but the average stuff. You see what I’m saying? There’s nothing exciting about him. Well, until today.[3]

Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath insists that law enforcement officials did all they could to find and rescue the young women. But neighbors claim that police failed to respond to their reports of suspicious conditions at Ariel’s home – windows covered with boards and bags, pounding from inside the doors and even seeing chained naked women crawling around the back yard.[4]

We celebrate Amanda, Gina and Michelle’s extraordinary courage and perseverance in surviving the degrading brutalities of their captivity. We applaud Charles’ homespun heroism in helping with their rescue. And yet it is startling and troubling that Ariel could carry out his heinous hostage horror for more than 10 years in the midst of neighbors and under the nose of the police.

Neighbors said that Ariel Castro took part in the search for one of the missing women, helped pass out fliers, performed music at a fundraiser for her and attended a candlelight vigil, where he comforted her mother. [And yet at the same time] as recently as 2005, Castro was accused of repeated acts of violence against his children’s mother.[5]

As it turns out, even hero Charles Ramsey has a record of domestic violence in his past.[6] These ragged realities show us that good and evil coexist in the human heart – in the words of Martin Luther we are “simul justus et peccator” – both saint and sinner – at the same time.

Yet, in the case of Amanda, Gina and Michelle, we see Ariel as a villain and Charles as a hero—why?

In spite of his past, Charles responded when he heard Amanda’s cry for help. He stopped. He listened. He got involved. He intervened. Each step required more courage than the last – especially, as he so poignantly pointed out, as a black man (who had past dealings with the law) getting involved with a white woman. But he did what was needed, putting her need for help ahead of his need to play it safe.

Ariel, on the other hand, was the ultimate deceiver. For 10 years, he systematically kidnapped, confined, sexually assaulted, terrorized and sadistically controlled Amanda, Gina and Michelle – abducted at ages 16, 14 and 20, all the while presenting himself as a good neighbor, an ordinary guy. He satisfied his twisted need for control and self-importance by dehumanizing these young women.

How could he do it, we wonder?  A more searching question now confronting us as a nation is how can WE do it?

Eleven years ago, in the aftermath of 9-11, on January 11 2002, twenty captives of former President George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” were taken as prisoners to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp at a U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.  By July 17, 2003, the prison population had swelled to 677.  The Bush administration asserted that detainees were not entitled to any of the protections of the Geneva Conventions governing global standards for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.[7] Though this executive directive was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2006, current and former prisoners have complained of abuse and torture at the hands of their U.S. captors:

Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have been subjected to Abu Ghraib-style torture and sexual humiliation in which they were stripped naked, forced to sodomise one another and taunted by naked female American soldiers, according to a new report. Some of the abuse has been captured on videotape. Based on the testimony of three former British prisoners who spoke with other detainees, the report details a brutal yet carefully choreographed regime at the US prison camp in which abuse was meted out in a manner judged to have the “maximum impact”. Those prisoners with the most conservative Muslim backgrounds were the most likely to be subjected to sexual humiliation and abuse while those from westernised backgrounds were more likely to suffer solitary confinement and physical mistreatment.[8]

In addition to sexual assault and physical abuse, Gitmo prisoners have undergone systematic torture techniques including sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory bombardment, solitary confinement, mock executions, forced medication, temperature extremes, psychological abuse, intimidation with dogs, and being forced to watch the torture of other prisoners.[9] This torture is being carried out by U.S. military personnel, including doctors and medical staff stationed there.[10]

The Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have also been subjected to religious persecution. The Muslim holy book, the Quran, is routinely desecrated, even reportedly being flushed down the toilet.[11] Non-Muslim interrogators have reportedly thrown the Quran on the ground and stepped on it in front of prisoners. And sexual torture is designed to violate Muslim sexual taboos.[12]

In addition to sexual assault, physical abuse, systematic torture and religious persecution, the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have been denied their human rights under international law and their legal rights under U.S. law. Though a series of transfers over the years has reduced Gitmo’s population from its near-700 high in 2003 to 166 today, many of those remaining have been held for as long as eleven years with no hearing and no formal charges entered against them, or else declared “enemy combatants” by sham tribunals and sentenced by kangaroo courts.[13]  Although in 2008, the Supreme Court – by a one-vote majority- upheld habeas corpus – the right to contest their imprisonment[14] – for Guantanamo Bay detainees, not a single habeas corpus petition from a Guantanamo prisoner has been granted.[15]

Common Article Three of the Geneva Convention

…describes minimal protections which must be adhered to by all individuals within a signatory’s territory during an armed conflict not of an international character (regardless of citizenship or lack thereof): Noncombatants, combatants who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are hors de combat (out of the fight) due to wounds, detention, or any other cause shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, including prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment. The passing of sentences must also be pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. Article 3’s protections exist even if one is not classified as a prisoner of war.[16] (my emphasis)

These are the provisions that the Bush Administration in 2002 asserted did not apply to detainees at Guantanamo Bay. They asserted that U.S. military personnel at Guantanamo did not have to adhere  to these minimal protections. They insisted that U.S. military personnel had the right to treat the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay inhumanely, to commit outrages upon their personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.  They asserted that the U.S. military could pass sentences on the Guantanamo prisoners without a regularly constituted court, stripped of all judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable to civilized peoples.  And even since 2006, when the Supreme Court ruled that these minimal protections in the Geneva Convention did apply to the Guantanamo detainees, Gitmo has gone on with its ghoulish, criminal activity.

We are Ariel Castro. We have systematically rounded up, confined, sexually assaulted, terrorized and sadistically controlled the Guantanamo prisoners under the banner of the United States – presenting ourselves to the world as one of the most advanced and civilized nations on earth —  “the land of the free, the home of the brave, the champion of democracy, the leader of the free world.”

Instead of fighting in the “Global War on Terror” we have become the Chief Perpetrators of a United States War of Terror against the prisoners held in the hell-hole at Guantanamo Bay. We have been satisfying our twisted need for power and control by brutalizing and dehumanizing the Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

Denied every legal recourse of appeal and held in the horror of daily brutality and degradation, more than 100 of the remaining 166 prisoners of Guantanmo Bay have resorted to the only means of protest left to them – hunger strikes. In spite of the torturous forced feedings of their captors, they are offering up their bodies as a “living sacrifice” an expression of resistance, a desperate cry to the world for help. Like Amanda Berry, through their self-starvation, they are screaming out for a Charles Ramsey Coalition – international neighbors willing to stop, listen, get involved, intervene, take a risk, demand that justice be done.

One of President Obama’s 2008 election promises was to shut down Gitmo by 2009. Congress thwarted his plans and he has not fulfilled that promise:

The result, at the camp, is near-total stasis. No new prisoner has arrived since 2008; none has left for over a year. Parole-style hearings planned for the group not designated for either trial or transfer have yet to begin. Prisoners have lawyers, but there is little the lawyers can do for them. This bleak situation, says Mr. Stafford Smith, is worse than being on death row.[17]

Gitmo prisoners feel betrayed, forgotten by President Obama and the international community. Will we ignore their desperate cry? Will we let them die? Will we be villains or heroes, Ariel Castro or Charles Ramsey?

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”[18]

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”[19] Jesus replied,
“166 people were going down from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, and fell into the hands of Ariel Castro, wearing the uniform of U.S. military personnel, who stripped them, beat them, and denied them basic human rights and a fair trial, leaving them half dead. Now by chance some ordinary American citizens were going down that road; and when those citizens saw those prisoners, they passed by on the other side thinking, ‘They deserve it for being radical Muslim terrorists and enemies of freedom and the American way.’

So likewise some other American citizens came to the place and saw them, and passed by on the other side thinking, ‘Hey, we’re just ordinary folks; We keep to ourselves; what can we do? Besides, we might get hurt or get in trouble getting involved in this. The President promised. That’s his problem. Let Congress work it out!

But a Charles Ramsey Coalition of the Concerned came near the hungry, tortured, desperate prisoners screaming for help; and when they saw them, they were moved with compassion. They realized this could be another ugly case of State-sanctioned or socially acceptable violence tolerated by default like our sad past national experience with the lynchings of the Jim Crow era, or the Japanese detainment camps of the World War II era, or the dogs and fire hoses of the Civil Rights era or the military rape culture of our current times.

So the Charles Ramsey Coalition got involved and saw to it that the Guantanamo detainees were properly cared for, transferred to their homelands or other receiving nations or given fair trials.  Rather than sanctioning the continued use of their tax dollars to fund or “refurbish” the exorbitantly expensive torture camp in Guantanmo Bay, they demanded that their tax dollars be used to bring an end to this shameful chapter in our shared American history.

When someone asked the Coalition why on earth they would go to such lengths to get involved in this Guantanamo issue, their leader, Charles Ramsey responded on their behalf  “We’re Americans, and we’re human beings. We’re just like you. We work for a living. These prisoners are in distress, so why turn your back on that?”[20]

Jesus says to us, “Go and do likewise.”

[2] Accessed 05/09/2013

[18] Luke 10:25-28

[19] Following is a contextualized paraphrase of the rest of the Good Samaritan parable found in Luke 10:29-37


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