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Department of Defense: Art Created by Guantαnamo Bay Detainees Belongs to U.S.

by Christopher Zoukis

Professor Erin L. Thompson of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City created a stir when she decided to curate an exhibit of art created by “enemy combatants” detained at Guantanamo Bay. The exhibit, “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo Bay,” displayed 36 works, including paintings and sculptures, all of which were created by the detainees.

The reaction to the exhibit was swift and vocal. Lee Ielpi, who lost his firefighter son on 9/11, said he was “shocked that John Jay would allow such a thing; it's disgusting and should be trashed.” Ielpi was especially incensed that some of the art was for sale.

“It is an absolute travesty to give credence to terrorists, and how do you put a price on it?” he said.

Thompson defended the exhibit, saying the art could provide insight into the minds of terrorists.

“We study terrorism, and I firmly believe that to prevent terrorism we need to understand the minds of terrorists and the minds of people wrongly accused of terrorism,” Thompson said. “So this art is really an invaluable window into the souls of people we need to understand.”

Once the Department of Defense got wind of the exhibit, a new policy was instituted. In order to prevent transfer of any detainee-produced art from Guantanamo, the DOD now says that it owns it all.

 “[I]tems produced by detainees at Guantanamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government,” said Maj. Ben Sakrisson.

In response, Thompson started a petition that quickly received thousands of signatures. The petition reads, “Let them know that burning art is something done by fascist and terrorist regimes -- but not by the American people. Art is an expression of the soul. This art belongs to the detainees and the world.”

Former detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi, author of Guantanamo Diary, compared the confiscation of detainee art to the day prison guards removed all of his “comfort items” — movies, books and other gifts received from family and friends.

“What I learned that day was that those 'comfort items' were given to me and to other detainees only so that our jailers could have another kind of leverage over us: to build a cloud of anxiety that anything we created or were given could at any time be taken away,” he said. “They said, essentially, that today, you may have something, but tomorrow you will again have nothing, because you are nothing.”


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