Michael Meltsner — the George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor in the School of Law — has written a play about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to express his outrage over the torture inflicted by U.S. military personnel on suspected terrorists after Sept. 11.
“If torture is not wrong in both the legal and moral sense then it’s hard to imagine what is,” said Meltsner, a former civil rights lawyer who has argued six times before the U.S. Supreme Court. “Lawyers in the George W. Bush administration defined torture in such a convoluted way that hardly passed the laugh test.”
A dramatic reading of the play, entitled “In Our Name,” will be performed for a sold-out audience at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre on Tuesday evening. Students at the City University of New York will perform the play at the Black Box Theater in May.
Brendan Shea, a dramatics associate at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA, praised the play, calling it a “living essay in which the United States’ actions at Guantanamo Bay are put on trial.”
Meltsner, who will read the part of a Guantanamo Bay official in tonight’s production, did not expect his play to receive so much attention. “So far it’s been a serendipitous journey,” he said. “My goal was to present the issues to people in such a way that they could reach their own conclusions based on their hearts and minds,” he added, noting his hope that the play would “get under people’s skin.”
Meltsner based his play on public records and often-redacted transcripts of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, which were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act.
“The Bush administration kept many of the documents secret, but they were eventually released,” Meltsner explained. “Some of the legal memos have been withdrawn because the government no longer stands by their reasoning.”
Meltsner criticized the Obama administration for following many of the same national security policies employed by the Bush administration.
Noting the killing of American-born al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki five months ago in Yemen, he said, “The Bush Doctrine basically said that the president gets to decide in secret what can be done without complying with the basic principles of the rule of law. The Obama administration has, in effect, claimed this same power.”
Meltsner hopes his play will contribute to making major changes in the way suspected terrorists are treated, but he’s not betting on it. “There’s always the hope that your ideas will contribute, but my goal is merely to make people confront what’s been done and may be done again in their name.”