The Justice Motive and Guantanamo Bay: The Blindness in Injustice   

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On the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States fell victim to the terrorist attacks of Al Qaeda. These attacks shifted the United States to focus on rectifying this travesty. This motivation birthed the “War on Terror,” which sought to destroy threats of terrorism and to bring those responsible for the 9/11 attacks to justice. Guantanamo Bay, a terrorist detention center located in an American controlled Cuban military base, represents a byproduct of this war. In this paper, I will argue that the justice motive provides the most explanative depiction of the Bush administration’s decision to open Guantanamo Bay, because it captures the intense and irreversible implications of experiencing injustice. First, I will define the interest and entitlement of the United States that became compromised in the September 11th attacks. Then, I will unfold the events after the September 11th attacks leading up to the opening of Guantanamo Bay. Here, I shall focus on the actions of the Bush administration and their political and legal justifications for creating Guantanamo Bay, which I will argue against. After that, I will break down the phenomenological, prescriptive, and extensive distinctions within Welch’s justice motive and apply them to the creation of Guantanamo Bay. I will conclude with my thoughts on the importance of looking at the decision to open Guantanamo Bay through the lens of the justice motive.

The Entitlement of Territory

Robert Welch’s justice motive is defined as the drive to correct a perceived discrepancy between entitlements and benefits. I will argue that the United States views their territory as an entitlement. The United States spends about 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending, around $598.5 billion per year, on their military. America’s “militarial” cost allocation results in over $20 trillion of debt. The justice motive suggests that if an actor views a good as an entitlement, they will value it more highly than its strategic or economic worth warrants. The devastating debt created through such military spending shows the value of protecting United States soil, which surpasses its strategic or economic worth. The September 11th attacks exemplify an attempt to encroach on this entitlement. The destruction of the twin towers symbolizes the line that Al Qaeda crossed that triggered the justice motive in the Bush administration. Thus began the Bush administration’s demand for justice as subsequently shown in the greater “War on Terror” and the creation of Guantanamo Bay.

Aftermath of September 11th: Guantanamo Bay

I will now shift my focus to the events following the September 11th attacks. President Bush addressed the nation the night of the attacks and declared a search for the terrorists behind these “evil acts.” The next day, Bush announced that these acts of terror constituted as acts of war. Bush covertly signed the Memorandum of Notification on September 17, 2001, which authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to capture, detain, and kill individuals who posed a threat of terrorism to the United States. Such legislation sparked discussions regarding the legal and policy restrictions for how the CIA and Department of Defense would manage Al Qaeda prisoners. On September 18, 2001, Congress enacted the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which gave Bush permission “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against those behind the September 11th attacks. The AUMF authorized Bush to invade Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to this invasion as “Operation Enduring Freedom.” On November 13th, 2001, Bush issued an order that established military commissions to prosecute members and affiliates of Al Qaeda for their war crimes. On November 19, 2001, the ground war in Afghanistan and “capturing” of potential terrorists began. The United States military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan could not adequately foster the number of captured detainees, which forced decision-makers to look for a place to permanently hold these detainees.

In December of 2001, discussions regarding the future of these detainees heightened within the Bush administration. The Afghan military base that temporarily held these detainees categorized inmates as lawful combatants. Such categorization meant that a specific standard of international law must apply to detainees, which the United States perceived as a belittlement of the potential intelligence value these detainees offered. With the AUMF intact, Bush held an extensive amount of power in this decision, which his administration considered. Rumsfeld said that the potential detention center would seek to detain extraordinarily dangerous terrorist, interrogate said individuals in an optimal setting, and eventually prosecute detainees for war crimes. Bush’s legal counsel suggested that Guantanamo Bay may serve as the best option to fulfill these goals due to its jurisdictional advantages. Because Guantanamo Bay qualified as non-U.S. territory, detainees would lose their legal entitlements to Constitutional rights. The Bush administration categorized those sent to Guantanamo Bay as “enemy combatants,” which gave the Bush administration the right to deny detainees legal protections afforded in the temporary Afghan military base and those required under the Geneva Conventions. The first detainees from Afghanistan and Pakistan arrived on January 11, 2002, thus sparking Guantanamo Bay’s legacy as the “legal equivalent of outer space.”

There is some fairness in seeing the creation of Guantanamo Bay as necessary. To benefit the greater agenda of the “War on Terror,” the Bush administration could not simply release those captured as suspected terrorists. To this extent, finding a place to hold these detainees proved unavoidable. However, I believe that this logic does not fully address the nature of Guantanamo Bay and what it represents in a post-9/11 America. I will argue that there is a deeper foundational reasoning behind Guantanamo Bay that surpasses the surface level explanations provided by the Bush administration. I shall use Welch’s categorical differentiations between the justice motive and loss to prove that Guantanamo Bay exemplifies a deeper psychological impact caused by feelings of injustice that can compromise elements of rationality.

Phenomenological Difference in Guantanamo Bay

The phenomenological difference suggests that the feeling of injustice triggers a unique emotional response based on an overwhelming sense of moral outrage. This perception of injustice can enable cognitive simplicity, higher risk acceptance, a willingness to accept further losses, and violent responses. If the justice motive explains the decision to create Guantanamo Bay, then evidence should reveal a certain kind of language that indicates something different and unique about the September 11th attacks. On September 15th, 2001, Bush told the American people “that [the] war against terrorism would be a different war, fought on many fronts… we’ve never seen this kind of evil before. But the evil-doers have never seen the American people in action before, either- and they’re about to find out.” Bush does not identify what makes the “War on Terror” different. One claim would point to the transcended reality of terrorism that surpasses national borders. Rather than fighting a single, tangible threat, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda present a magnitude of threats that lack detectability. Certain elements of this argument prove reasonable. However, this reasoning of the perception of terrorism does not explain the decision to open Guantanamo Bay.

A crucial part of the process for selecting Guantanamo Bay included the legal benefits its location offered. Exempting these prisoners from their basic human rights under the United States Constitution and the Geneva Conventions exemplifies a violent response to feelings of injustice. This ties into a theory created by Daniel Kahneman known as experienced utility. This theory puts emotions into preferences to show that how one experiences something determines their preferences. This theory exposes why process matters and that people lack the ability to accurately predict their future preferences. When Al Qaeda attacked the United States to take American lives, it festered negative affects within the United States because of experiencing this injustice. This moral outrage towards a terrorist group spilling American blood on American soil led to a desire of outright violence towards the perceived perpetrators of this injustice. This exposes the impact of experiencing injustice as something that changes an individual. In opening Guantanamo Bay and exempting detainees from their basic human rights, the United States dehumanizes detainees in a manner consistent with the affective urgency of experiencing injustice. This highlights the inability for individuals to predict their future preferences, as the experience of the September 11th attacks eventually led to a compromise of both domestic and international law.

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Prescriptive Difference in Guantanamo Bay

The prescriptive difference in the justice motive requires a different set of behaviors to address and fix this injustice. Risk acceptance persists as a common result, as this passionate desire to rectify injustice overpowers any consideration of potential risks or losses. It can even spark a willingness to endure economic losses. I argue that the cost of creating Guantanamo Bay exemplifies this prescriptive difference in the justice motive. Rather than holding suspected terrorists in existing United States maximum security prisons, the Bush administration created an entirely new detention center for these prisoners. Again, the considerations with opening Guantanamo Bay centered around the locational leniency it offered that would allow the United States to deal with detainees differently than those in prisons on United States soil. At Guantanamo Bay a new enemy faced a special kind of treatment. Officials referred to this phenomenon as “rough justice.” Guantanamo served as Al Qaeda’s Nuremberg: the end of the line for perpetrators of monstrous crimes against the United States. To accomplish this, the United States annually spends $10 million dollars per Guantanamo Bay detainee. For reference, the United States spends $78,000 per prisoner in federal “Supermax” prisons and $34,046 per prisoner in federal maximum security prisons.

This dramatic cost difference aligns with the justice motive’s prediction that individuals will suffer economic penalties to enforce fairness as they perceive it. The cost of a suspected terrorist being detained in Guantanamo Bay represents a different kind of threat due to the disrespect they imposed on United States soil. The Bush administration could not un-see this injustice, as it became permanently engrained into the tone and rhetoric of the administration. For this reason, cost became irrelevant when attempting to rectify this injustice.

Extensive Difference in Guantanamo Bay

I will now address the extensive distinction of the justice motive in relation to the decision to open Guantanamo Bay. If opening Guantanamo Bay fits under the justice motive, language surrounding the bipolarity of justice should arise to exemplify this extensive difference. On March 30, 2002, President Bush addressed the nation using this very language.

On September 11th, a great evil was done to our country. America and the civilized world are now joined together in a great struggle against enemies who have no regard for innocent life. Grave challenges and dangers face us in this war. We cannot predict every turn ahead of us, yet in this season, we are assured that history is of moral design. Justice and cruelty have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them. His purposes are often denied but never defeated. Bush’s rhetoric aligns with the extensive distinction of the justice motive, which predicts that feelings of injustice create extremes in the defense of entitlements that only foster enemies and allies. Bush’s language shows that those who do not fully respect the United States personal perception of entitlement to their territory categorically embody an evil.

The justice motive exclusively extends to the benefits that individuals perceive as entitlements, and anything less than full satisfaction of such entitlements is not tolerated. On January 26, 2002, Bush stated in a radio address that “our fight against terrorism began in Afghanistan, but it will not end there. America must not rest until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Bush’s language exemplifies the extreme stubbornness associated with experiencing injustice. This shows Bush’s inability to settle on injustices towards a perceived entitlement and a motivation to fight indefinitely until that satisfaction is met in full. Opening Guantanamo Bay exemplifies the extent to which the Bush administration went to achieve this goal. `

The Powerful Blindness in Injustice at Guantanamo Bay

I find it critical to address the emotional and motivated feelings of injustice after the September 11th attacks as to understand subsequent blind spots. The justice motive best explains the Bush administration’s decision to open Guantanamo Bay. I will use the number of wrongfully detained prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to exemplify this power in the justice motive. On December 23, 2002, the Los Angeles Times reported that at least 59 detainees, about 10 percent of Guantanamo detainees, lacked any evidence of terrorist ties or intelligence value. Some may suggest that the United States’ intense focus on capturing terrorists in the “War on Terror” corrupted the screening process for simply a small percentage of potential detainees. This explanation remains unsatisfying considering the vast discrepancies of these “screening mistakes.”

It appears unlikely for such a well-resourced program like the United States’ CIA to make such consistent and costly mistakes. The Bush administration justified Guantanamo as a detention center that holds the “worst of the worst.” It seems arbitrary to take this claim lightly, and one would assume that such a goal would entail a more diligent filtering process to ensure that the detainees truly fit this extreme description. The justice motive suggests something systematic in the desperation of experiencing injustice that can enable oversights. I will argue that such oversights did not necessarily suggest a lacking element in the terrorist screening process, but a motivated decision to overlook important components in such screenings.

In 2010, former aide to Secretary of State Powell, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson released an affidavit that validates this prediction. Wilkerson revealed that top United States officials, including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, knew and hid the innocence of some Guantanamo Bay detainees. Wilkerson said that the innocent detainees remained in Guantanamo for political expedience. This mirrors the bipolar foundation of the justice motive that categorizes in extremes of good and evil. Those sent to Guantanamo Bay represented an evil, which enabled motivated biases that corrupt the realm of reality appraisal to the point that innocence becomes irrelevant. The justice motive suggests that this blindness stems from this evil categorization of Guantanamo detainees. I acknowledge that this may not serve as the strongest evidence for the role of the justice motive in Guantanamo Bay due to the hindsight biases it may possess. However, the number of innocent detainees in Guantanamo Bay exemplifies the compromising dangers associated with experiencing injustice. The explicitly motivated basis of the justice motive disrupts the ability to fix these biases, as the individual experiencing injustice share no concern for reality appraisal. Understanding the possible implications of such motivated biases does serve a vital function in understanding certain decisions in international relations associated with inevitability and emotional blindness.


The Bush administration’s political and legal justifications for opening Guantanamo Bay do not sufficiently explain the full scope of this decision. Although these justifications carry some legitimacy, the justice motive exposes that the deeply emotional implications of experiencing the injustice of the September 11th attacks played a prominent role in the United States’ decision to open Guantanamo Bay. The necessity for opening Guantanamo Bay cannot simply attribute to sentiments of common sense or dealing with the losses of the September 11th attacks. The foundational premise for this decision stems from the United States’ experience of injustice towards their perceived entitlement of United States soil. The September 11th attacks triggered a unique emotional response that drove the Bush administration to enable an indefinite “War on Terror” that sought to stop at nothing to destroy any future possibility for terrorism to violate United States territory. The creation of Guantanamo Bay shows the extent to which injustice changed the Bush administration. The amount of planning, both politically and legally, after the September 11th attacks and up to the opening of Guantanamo Bay shows that although rooted in emotion, the Bush administration certainly did not act unintentionally. These sentiments of injustice sparked a deep desire within the Bush administration to punish those responsible for the September 11th attacks regardless of the associated risk or cost. The Bush administration cared deeply to experience justice again, and this motivated them to fight to regain this security in what they perceived as their deserved rights to United States territory. The justice motive accounts for this need, and explains the creation of Guantanamo Bay as well as the role it played in the United States’ quest for regaining justice.

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