The Rest of the World: Fixing Guantanamo
- May. 11, 2012
- 320 Comments
On January 11, 2002, 20 captives were led through the razor-straddled gates of Camp X-Ray, one of three interconnected detainment zones in southeastern Cuba. They were the first of 779 men to be held within the confines of an American naval base and detention center known as Guantanamo Bay.
Just after his inauguration, President Barack Obama called for a suspension of military trials at Guantanamo and planned to close the facility in the coming year, the existence of which he labeled, “A sad chapter in American history.” His administration made a concerted effort to do this, but was eventually defeated by staunch Congressional opposition and a 90 to 6 vote in the Senate, barring the appropriation of $80 million to transfer the remaining detainees elsewhere. In March of last year, Obama authorized the reinstatement of the trials. And, last Sunday, hearings for five of the alleged September 11 terrorists – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – finally began.
Some people view the continued utilization of Guantanamo as a disappointing capitulation for the Obama administration and a point of shame for the rest of the country. In one sense, they’re right. Obama made a direct promise and couldn’t keep it. But the prevailing logic about Guantanamo is unapologetically simplistic: It’s a terrible place, and it has to go. This has to be countered from the outset. Guantanamo is nothing more than a mass of steel and concrete on a 45-square-mile plot of land. Bulldozing it won’t right any wrongs or solve any problems.
Here are a few of the wrongs. Many of the prisoners at Guantanamo are being held indefinitely, and according to the convening authority on Guantanamo military commissions, at least one was tortured. Amnesty International has called for the immediate closure of Guantanamo, citing the lack of set trial dates, the perceived illegality of American military commissions and a catalog of human rights violations. They even hysterically branded the facility, “the gulag of our times.”
Guantanamo Bay won’t be shutting down any time soon. But this shouldn’t impel you to don your baggiest orange jumpsuit and join your friends in front of the White House for a “Close Gitmo” march. This issue is immensely layered, and it goes far beyond the good vs. evil dichotomy envisioned by Amnesty International and most American citizens.
So, this is a simple plea to my contemporaries. Continue to criticize the things that make you queasy about Guantanamo, but try to contribute something more refined to the dialogue. Recognize the intricacy of the problems that must be handled without indulging in mindless condemnation. Yes, Obama failed to close Guantanamo. But bear a few of my subsequent points in mind when you stroll into a voting booth this November. If we’re in agreement, hold our leaders (whoever they may be) to them.
It may be noted that this article is not an endorsement of torture, indefinite detention, or prisoner abuse. These are egregious offenses, and they must be dealt with accordingly. But the three major issues mentioned in the Amnesty International appeal can be addressed without shipping detainees to third world countries, stuffing them into overcrowded federal prisons, or haphazardly releasing them (many of which would promptly find their way back to extremist organizations).
Obama was right to call Guantanamo “sad.” It’s been a site of detestable cruelty and injustice over the years. But these outrages don’t call for the compulsory expenditure of millions of dollars to compound the problem when there are more equitable solutions to consider.
First, there is the question of indefinite detention. It’s a wartime measure, expressly employed to neutralize immediate threats or prevent them from materializing. However, we are in a state of perpetual conflict with a shadowy, ultra-mobile enemy that may not relent for decades. Thus, detainees cannot simply be held until the end of hostilities.
A 2008 Supreme Court case, Boumediene v. Bush, determined that prisoners are to be given a “meaningful opportunity” to challenge their accusers in court. The commissions afforded by this decision are ongoing, but there are a number of detainees who haven’t even been properly charged. This must be addressed in the most aggressive conceivable way – it’s not that the jury is still out on these cases; the jury has never been allowed in. If there is insufficient evidence to charge (much less convict) a prisoner, more vigorous efforts must be undertaken to accumulate information for the prosecution. It should be an unsleeping attempt to either convict or acquit.
In a recent appellate court case, a Yemeni man was shackled with a life sentence in light of Pakistani claims about his possible al-Qaeda connections. However, even one of the judges who opted to convict simultaneously expressed severe reservations about the evidence, which was, “prepared in stressful and chaotic conditions, filtered through interpreters, subject to transcription errors and heavily redacted for national security purposes.”
Dubious arraignments such as this must be subject to frequent, consistent review. And, for the prisoners who haven’t yet been ascribed formal charges, the process of doing so must not be abbreviated. Perhaps the $80 million that the Obama administration wanted to spend on prisoner transfers should instead be allocated to intelligence-gathering on the prisoners themselves.
The most indefensible stain on Guantanamo’s record is a history of torture and other human rights abuses. This can be handled without strain. The United States should fervently disallow torture and other forms of prisoner abuse on its territory. Punishments for any breach of these precedents should be severe. The United Nations and Amnesty International should be allowed to inspect Guantanamo as thoroughly as they please. What should we have to hide? The war on terrorism is a necessary, noble pursuit, and it shouldn’t be disfigured by practices inconsistent with our most crystalized values.
If, in some gleaming, distant future, Guantanamo could be characterized as decent and just, what cause would we have to shut it down? Some would invariably demand its closure as a symbolic gesture. But I hope their folly wouldn’t burden the collective conscience of the reformed.