BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a 2004 film comedy, a couple of stoners named Harold and Kumar got a serious case of the munchies and head out for White Castle. In the sequel to the film, due out in April, the two friends, played by Asian-American actors, go to Gitmo. [CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] NARRATOR: While on a plane, our fun-loving Indian-American hero, Kumar Patel, gets mistaken for a bomb-carrying terrorist in this post-9/11 era. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: In reality, Guantanamo, or Gitmo as it's commonly known, is a prison complex on southeastern Cuba established by the American military on its naval base there shortly after the attacks of September 11th.
In the nearly six years since it began receiving prisoners, Guantanamo has housed more than 700 suspected terrorists, or enemy combatants. We interviewed Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg back in September, and she observed that Gitmo has become a recurrent pop-cultural trope throughout the world, in memoirs, in novels, in visual arts and theater - even song. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] STEPHEN COFFEE [SINGING]: The stars for my blanket, I lie here on the ground. The sun's the only thing allowed to move around. I don't cause no trouble. Don't even make a sound. It could be years to go in Guantanamo. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rosenberg, who has visited the prison many dozens of times for hundreds of hours, believes that Gitmo has long since left the Island of Cuba and taken on a symbolic life of its own - certainly not what the U.S. had in mind back in 2002. CAROL ROSENBERG: There always was the notion that it would become a Nuremberg, that it would become a place where America got justice, that they would create and hold these trials and that we would learn that America had found and prosecuted the perpetrators of 9/11. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now, of course, Guantanamo has become a kind of international stand-in for something much larger when we shorthand Guantanamo today. What is it that we're actually talking about? CAROL ROSENBERG: Indefinite detention without charge. The notion that the United States can take a person, put him on an extraterritorial piece of land, which they declare not to be the United States, and to say that as long as this war goes on we can hold you without bringing you before formal charges, is what Gitmo, certainly in the left-wing circles, has come to mean. That's it. That's the shorthand.
And it's six years later, and the debate is being played out. And I guess the point of my article is that it's being played out not in necessarily the arenas that you'd expect it to be, which would be at the Pentagon, in Congress and at the courts, but, in a way, the popular culture has hijacked the narrative.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was it in particular in pop culture that pushed you to do the story? CAROL ROSENBERG: Poetry books and memoirs and kitsch and all these novels had been piling up on my desk for months. Then I see the Sicko trailer, Michael Moore's trailer for his documentary, shock documentary on the state of health care today. And he uses Guantanamo as a metaphor.
Michael Moore is trying to get onto the base to show this fabulous free health care that the Pentagon has been boasting about. You know, part of the package tour at Guantanamo for first-time reporters is we give detainees the same free health care we give America's soldiers and service members.
And so, Michael Moore turns the narrative on its head and says if it's good enough for Guantanamo, isn't it good enough for, I don't know, Georgia? [CLIP][MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MICHAEL MOORE: We commandeered a fishing boat and sailed into Guantanamo Bay. [THROUGH BULLHORN] These are 9/11 rescue workers. They just want some medical attention, the same kind that Al Qaeda is getting. They don't want any more than you're giving the evildoers. Just the same. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you say, Michael Moore took the government's talking points and turned them on their heads. Is that what most of the pop culture references do, is depict Guantanamo as something quite different from what the military wants to describe it as? CAROL ROSENBERG: Absolutely. It says we don't agree with you and we are going to answer through the arts. That's the thing about this Harold and Kumar story that's coming up that's so interesting. They're portraying two men as having been caught up and misidentified as terrorists and landing at Guantanamo.
I mean, it's a very interesting popular cultural response to the narrative that everybody down there is evil, everybody down there is guilty. Now you have this political satire where there's these two - schmoes? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fair enough. CAROL ROSENBERG: They're not captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan, as the Pentagon alleges many of these people are. In this story that's coming, they end up down there, and I think the underlying message is they don't deserve to be there, and it's Kafkaesque. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you open your piece with a one-man, one-hour play called Jesus: The Guantanamo Years, which was staged in Boston this summer. Tell me about that. CAROL ROSENBERG: Well, this man who had done the show in Scotland and Ireland brought it to Boston. Jesus has come back to deliver a message in these troubled post-9/11 times and finds himself pulled out of the line at Kennedy Airport by Immigration, where he's asked if he's willing to die for his ideals. And he's Jesus, so he says yes. And the next thing he knows, he finds himself at Guantanamo. [CLIP] ACTOR AS JESUS: Let's be fair. This guy works for U.S. Immigration. So to him, I am a single male Palestinian of no fixed address, traveling alone, with very little hand luggage. [LAUGHTER] Not that reassuring, you'd have to say. [END CLIP]
CAROL ROSENBERG: I see these things popping up all over, and I think we're all waiting, maybe in the professional media, in the courts, in Congress, for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide, and popular culture, the things that are out there on the Web that are bubbling from one end of the planet to the other, they're carrying on a parallel debate and they're in a much different place than we are. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the song we heard earlier in the intro was called Guantanamo, by Stephen Coffee of the Harley String Band. There are a bunch of parody songs. Others that come to mind that are serious are by Patti Smith and Charlie Daniels, two very different artists with very different motivations. Here's a little bit of the Patti Smith. PATTI SMITH: [SINGING]: Four long years, nothing to say. Thoughts impure in Guantanamo Bay. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Smith's song was inspired by the story of a former German-born detainee, and you've written that Germany has been especially fertile ground for Guantanamo as a reference point. CAROL ROSENBERG: The man that Patti Smith sings about, Murat Kurnaz, is a Muslim son of Turkish immigrants, and he doesn't automatically get German citizenship. But he went back, he wrote his memoirs. They're in German. They were published. They're being translated. Germany, Australia and London have been particularly fertile ground for some of this material. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Among other written bits of pop culture a book of poems written by the prisoners themselves and published by a law professor, Mark Falkoff. What's the reaction been? CAROL ROSENBERG: They had an initial 5,000 book run. The typical poetry anthology in America has a 2,500 book run. And they're in their second 5,000 book run. It's early, but it's possible that some fairly crudely translated poems from Urdu and Arabic by prison camp translators that made their way through the Pentagon's review system will be the most popular poetry anthology published in the United States this year. BROOKE GLADSTONE: As somebody who's been there many dozens of times, as we've said, when you look at some of the humorous, the satirical references to Gitmo, can you laugh? CAROL ROSENBERG: I can't. I mean, it bothers me. I'm waiting for Congress to have a proper hearing to discuss these issues. I try to bring to the coverage a sort of gravitas, and into this vacuum is this slapstick humor. I mean, that's what it is. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Carol, thank you very much. CAROL ROSENBERG: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Carol Rosenberg is the Guantanamo reporter for The Miami Herald.