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Opinion | What I’ve Learned as a Lawyer Representing Prisoners at Guantánamo

To be clear, my clients have not expressed antisemitism or hatred toward me. My primary client isn’t alleged to have attacked America — he’s alleged to have been tangentially involved with an attack in Indonesia — yet he was brutally tortured and has been in prison for nearly two decades. Regardless, my colleagues and I assist these men not because we support the crimes they are alleged to have committed, but because we believe that our country should hold itself to the highest standard of basic decency and human rights.

As an attorney and military officer, I am duty bound to defend my clients, a mission which our country and Constitution demand. Likewise, as a Jew, I was taught the core value of seeing humanity in all peopleeven enemies. And as an American, I was taught that everyone has certain unalienable rights, and that the protections of fair trials, due process and a prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment apply regardless of the alleged crimes.

Those who seek to abrogate these rights, who take shortcuts, who bow to near-term political or ideological expediency, forget the basic tenets of what this country truly stands for, what once made us a beacon of light for those struggling around the world.

Private Cooperberg’s letter closed with a warning that the true enemy is “any people who proclaim themselves better than all other peoples, and then set out to prove it by murder and trickery and by the stupidity of those who never bothered to reason for themselves.”

As Americans, we are constantly presented with the choice of what our moral role in the world should be. We can pick a path of turpitude and compromise, choosing amoral, shortsighted means of attacking those who seek to harm us. But such choices come with consequences — they severely erode our relationships abroad, and weaken our moral core at home.

Alternatively we can choose to illuminate the many darknesses of the world with the power of our example, and reclaim the grace and humanity we find in the best efforts of the Americans who have come before us.

If we’re going to choose the latter path, we must acknowledge our mistakes, and show we can learn from them. What’s happened at Guantánamo is an example of one such error. Twenty years on it is time for us to choose how — or if — we can begin to repair the damage.

The choice is ours. But I think I know what Private Cooperberg would have us do.

Lt. Commander Aaron J. Shepard, Judge Advocate General’s Corps, United States Navy (@GTMOCatch22) is a military officer and attorney. He currently serves as a managing defense counsel with the Military Commissions Defense Organization. The views expressed do not reflect those of the Defense Department, the U.S. government or any of its agencies.

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