The White House released a poignant photo of President Obama standing with his family in the former cell of Nelson Mandela.  The caption tells the full story:

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, along with daughters Sasha and Malia, stand in former South African President Nelson Mandela’s cell as they listen to former prisoner Ahmed Kathrada during their tour of Robben Island Prison on Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa, June 30, 2013. Leslie Robinson is pictured at left. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Obama Family in Nelson Mandela's prison cell.

Obama Family in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. Official White House Flickr Photo Stream

Yes, the image is moving, and powerful.

It is powerful for two reasons:   the connection to Nelson Mandela, a hero to many around the world, and the power of forgiveness in face of unjust imprisonment, where Mandela was famously imprisoned for 27 years.    It was Mandela’s embodiment of forgiveness that became part of South Africa moving towards reconciliation.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

As the President so poignantly commemorates Madiba, I want to urge him to remember another group of political prisoners who are wrongly imprisoned:   More than half of the 166 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay  have been cleared to be released by the United States’ own reckoning.   It’s only bureaucracy and governmental paperwork that is preventing the release of those who have already been cleared.

Guantanamo Bay prisoners courtesy Wikipedia

Guantanamo Bay prisoners courtesy Wikipedia

Yes, the President is to be lauded for visiting the site of Mandela’s imprisonment–the representation of injustice–and his release and redemption–the triumph of justice.    The juxtaposition is a symbol of the triumph of good over evil, justice over injustice, and hope over hatred.   The world deserves such a lesson today as well.   We all need such a lesson.   Think of the powerful symbolism of releasing around a hundred political prisoners back to their families and loved ones.

Mandela prison:

Nelson Mandela's prison cell

Nelson Mandela’s prison cell from Wikipedia

Guantanamo Bay cells:

Guantanamo Bay prison cell

Guantanamo Bay prison cell courtesy of Wikipedia

And how are we to know if contained in Guantanamo there may not be another Mandela?
Who is to say if one of the released prisoners may not turn out to be a similarly powerful voice of reconciliation, healing, and justice?

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela from Wikipedia

As Madiba himself said:  “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
For a President who is so concerned about his historical legacy, it is an opportunity to go down as corrected one of the great wrongs of recent American history.    It’s the right thing to do, and it would earn him–and the United States–a massive amount of good will.



  1. Mr. Safi seems to forget that some of these prisoners cannot be returned to tdheir native lands for their own safety and Muslim countries do not seem overly willing to accept them. Is Mr. Safi proposing that they be allowed to wander freely in the US?

    • Omid Safi

      Hello Mr. Allan, actually the facts don’t bear out your theory. It is more due to internal US politicking.

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