“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.” – excerpted from President Obama’s inaugural address
The United States is a country of breathtaking highs and soul-crushing lows. One of the lowest low points in American history is the tragic reality of the Guantanamo Bay detention area, also known as Gitmo. For over one hundred years the US Navy has maintained this base on the southern tip of the island of Cuba. The proximity of the base to the US mainland coupled with its location in a country with whom we have no diplomatic relations has made Gitmo a unique asset for the US government.
The fact that it was not on US soil means that the laws of the United States did not apply. The fact that it was located in a country where we have no diplomatic relations means we did not have to care about what the host country thought of our activities there.
The Bush administration took advantage of these facts to create a specialized prison to hold what were called “enemy combatants”, which they defined as anybody the President said was involved in terrorism against the United States. Think about that for a minute – all it took to be sent to Gitmo was the President stating that you were an enemy combatant. No trial. No jury. No lawyers. No hearings. No rights. No Constitution. No Geneva Convention. Nothing. Just imprisonment by Presidential fiat.
Sounds like the old Soviet Union to me, doesn’t it? Remember those days, when the USSR would throw comrades into prison for political reasons and just make them disappear? Remember how outraged we were by that? But with the dawn of the “War on Terror” we ended up with our own American Gulag. Now, we did not imprison millions at Gitmo, only hundreds, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. Picture a serial killer who murders 25 people and compare him to a dictator who causes the genocide of hundreds of thousands. Do we forgive the serial killer because of the smaller scope of his crime? Of course not. The nature of the crime is so heinous that scale doesn’t matter.
And such is the case here. We, the United States of America, took foreign nationals from foreign soil and imprisoned them with no rights or due process, with no method to appeal their case, without even a sentence to mark the time – just open-ended imprisonment until such time as we decided we wanted to do something with them.
Quite frankly, my opinion is that Bush and Cheney didn’t realize the magnitude of their fuck-up until Gitmo was well-established and publicly known, and then they realized that there was no way to un-fuck it. Gitmo was filled with a mix of innocent people, people who were not necessarily innocent but for whom there wasn’t enough evidence to try and convict, unquestionably bad people for whom the only evidence was obtained through illegal and/or immoral means (like torture), and the few very bad people who we could legitimately charge and convict of crimes using the standards of any acknowledged court.
So Bush and Cheney looked at their options and realized that the best course of action was to defend the existence of Gitmo, and then leave the mess for the next administration to clean up. The good news is that even as the administration tried to exercise imperial prerogative, the checks and balances of the American government tried to rein them in. When the case of a Guantanamo Bay detainee reached the US Supreme Court, the majority ruled in his favor, and their opinion included the following:
“The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” – Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, affirming that detainees at Guantanamo Bay have rights
And President Obama is acting on that precept and cleaning up the Bush/Cheney debacle. On his first full day in office he announced that Gitmo would be closed within a year. There are enormous complications surrounding the clean-up of this mess, such as what to do with people whose home countries won’t take them back? What do we do with guys we know are our enemies but who we can’t convict with any legitimate evidence? How do we stop the inevitable stories of abuse and torture from becoming public and further shaming the United States? The answer is that these questions have no easy answers, but that does not mean that we keep Gitmo open because it is inconvenient to close it. This is a wrong that needs to be made right, the fact that it will be hard to do doesn’t change that fact.
Obama also announced that, beginning immediately, all further interrogation and treatment of Gitmo detainees would conform to the US Army Field Manual. So, not only will the American Gulag be closed within a year, but the maltreatment of the prisoners there will stop immediately.
But what about the safety of the United States? Bush administration defenders love to trot out the “ticking bomb” scenario in attempts to justify torture, by saying that if a hidden bomb is set to explode and a prisoner knows the location of the bomb, we are justified in setting aside any rights of the prisoner and any morality that we hold dear and torture the prisoner in order to save the lives at risk from the bomb. But a true “ticking bomb” scenario only happens one in a million times – and there were (and are) hundreds and hundreds of Gitmo detainees…were (or are) there hundreds and hundreds of ticking bombs, with their flashing red LED clocks counting down to tragedy, while the foreboding musical ker-thunks from the show “24” serve as a dramatic flourish?
No, there isn’t. Are there groups who hate the United States and want to strike at us and murder our innocent civilians on American soil? Yes, there are. But, to me, the reason that attacking the United States is such a heinous act is because of what we stand for – freedom, justice, morality, opportunity – the pursuit of happiness, if you will. But if we reject our principles in the defense of our way of life, what will we have gained? And what will we have lost?
One of the greatest statesmen in American history said it best:
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” – Benjamin Franklin