I was flying home from Europe recently, after interviewing several former Guantanamo detainees in France and Switzerland for a documentary and archival project. When the Air France flight attendant served me a drink, he called me "Steven Spielberg." I laughed and assured him that I was not the renowned director. (Since I am of similar age, have a beard, and often wear a cap, other people also have commented that I look like him.) Nevertheless, the attendant was persistent and addressed me as "Mr. Spielberg" throughout the flight.
Though I am not Steven Spielberg, there is nevertheless a powerful connection between us: He provided the inspirational spark for my current work. Because of him, the Witness to Guantanamo
project was conceived.
In 2009 I had completed a book explaining how America had lost its way by sacrificing its values and its adherence to the rule of law (Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror
, University of California Press). Since the early days of the decade, I had contributed to the study and scholarship of the subject. Starting in January 2002 I taught a class on 9/11 and terrorism every year. I had also written law review articles and penned opinion pieces for the Huffington Post
. In 2007 I even managed to visit the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, where the U.S. has held men accused of al-Qaeda or Taliban association since 2002. I had learned a lot more than I ever imagined about the rapidly expanding areas of international humanitarian law, international criminal law, military law, and human rights law. However, after my book was published my friends assumed that I would be ready to move beyond post-9/11 issues.
But I was restless. The issues I had been studying were still unresolved, and newly elected President Obama was not addressing them.
One night, while struggling with the question of what to do next, I thought of my father. In the late 1920s he was living in Vienna. As a Jew, he saw firsthand the looming genocidal Holocaust. During Kristallnacht in November 1938 - when the Nazis destroyed Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues and terrorized the Jews - a Catholic woman hid him in her home, in violation of the law. The following year my father received a letter from the Austrian government ordering him to appear at the train station for deportation to a concentration camp. He ignored the letter. He disregarded a second letter as well. Then a third dispatch arrived, warning that if he did not report the next morning, the authorities would come for him. That same day, he and my mother received visas to emigrate to America.
He told his story 50 years later to the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, which was established to document the Holocaust in reply to Holocaust deniers. Steven Spielberg is its biggest funder. My father was one of more than 48,000 Jewish survivors whom the Shoah Foundation interviewed on camera.
There was my inspiration! I would videotape interviews to document the human rights abuses and rule of law violations that occurred in Guantanamo. Unlike Spielberg, however, I had neither filmmaking nor interviewing experience. But no one else was documenting the first-person narratives of Guantanamo detainees on film, and it needed to be done before their memories faded and their voices disappeared.
Then serendipity played its role. Two former students of mine had connections to local family foundations that generously financed the germination of the project.
Like Spielberg's videos of Holocaust survivors, the interviews recorded for the Witness to Guantanamo project will be here long after I am gone. To date, we have filmed 66 interviews. The subjects include 34 former detainees in ten countries as well as prison guards, chaplains, prosecutors, habeas lawyers, high-ranking government and military officials, medics, and parents of prisoners.
Like Steven Spielberg's Shoah videos, the Witness to Guantanamo project is dedicated to humanity and the rule of law.
Peter Jan Honigsberg is a law professor at the University of San Francisco, an author, and director of the Witness to Guantanamo project.