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The Real Cost of Guantanamo

danps's picture

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

The president had his final press conference this week and it caused quite a stir. An unusually adversarial White House press corps (glad you could make it!) and an uncharacteristically reflective subject produced more noteworthy comments than a year's worth of them normally create. The president came off poorly, and many observers - including right leaning and solidly right wing ones - could not help but note unflattering similarities to Richard Nixon. But despite the unusually candid tone and body language - by turns unrepentant, defensive, petulant and arrogant - and the mostly unyielding insistence on his rightness, perhaps the most revealing moment did not seem to get much scrutiny.

When asked whether his administration's military and detention policies "have damaged America's moral standing in the world," he fired back that America is plenty popular just about everywhere but the salons of Europe. That part of the answer got plenty of play. But then he said, "And I understand that Gitmo has created controversies. But when it came time for those countries that were criticizing America to take some of those - some of those detainees, they weren't willing to help out." The first and most superficially interesting part of the answer is his stammering on "some of those." The White House has been exceedingly careful to refer to those held in Guantánamo as detainees and not prisoners. Calling them prisoners brings those quaint Geneva Conventions into the picture and would require them to be treated according to an organized, recognized and legitimate legal system. Calling them detainees allows the administration to keep them in the improvised and illegitimate activities they continue to insist is a valid new legal system. Was the president about to say "some of those prisoners"? And what does it say about his policy that the language regarding it must be so frequently parsed, checked and otherwise tailored?

The truly remarkable part of his statement is his assumption that other countries that have been critical of this world of shadows have some obligation to take the prisoners off our hands. Other countries have been critical because these policies go against centuries of Western legal, judicial, civil and human rights traditions! The president acts as though it is done in a fit of pique, or contrariness, or distaste for him personally, or reflexive anti-Americanism or moral obtuseness. It does not seem to occur to him, and he may be incapable of imagining, that they have taken these positions out of a deep ethical repugnance for the policies themselves. As such, what obligation do they have to become entangled in our moral quagmire? Perhaps they objected in the first place precisely because they could envision just the dead end we now find ourselves in, and did not want to take that dilemma on for themselves.

And a dead end it is. I have read and heard numerous purveyors of conventional wisdom in the last few weeks ponder sagely on the Gordian Knot we are confronted with. It goes along these lines: Well, we have had these people warehoused for years. We have to close it down. But where would they go? You can't just send them to Leavenworth; politicians won't allow it. It would be easier to get nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. You can't bring them into the legal system because once cruelty-induced evidence is thrown out there may not be enough left to sustain an indictment much less a conviction. You could try to create some alternate procedure for trying them, but that would ultimately come down to trying to find a way to admit the fruits of torture into evidence. Yet at least some of them (probably more than when the place opened) harbor extremely ill feelings towards us, and a few among them have actively conspired to do us harm.

If we can't hold them, can't convict them in our legal system and could only potentially convict them in a kangaroo court designed to let us rationalize inhumane treatment, what is left? The answer is obvious, of course (if politically treacherous). They have to be released back to their home countries. We have to allow them, even ones with untold secrets, unhatched plots and unstinting hatred towards us, the worst of the worst if you will, to go back where they came from. It would let the rest of the world, even those who "weren't willing to help out," know that we will not attempt to profit from lawlessness. We would send the message that we will put ourselves at a practical disadvantage when we run afoul of our own - and the rest of the civilized world's - standards for decency. And then we better double and triple check our intelligence gathering capabilities.

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Jimmy72's picture
Submitted by Jimmy72 on

The negative impact of Gitmo on America's image will last for generations, no doubt.
Obama will have to clean up the mess that Bush has caused. As if there were not already enough problems:
--When President-Elect Barack Obama announced that one of his administration's first priorities would be to close the U.S. detainment center at Guantanamo Bay, many Americans rightly embraced the news. For too long, the practices of abusive interrogation at Guantanamo have been a stain on a country that prides itself on human rights; the diminished due process for prisoners there have equally stained our country's claims to equal protection for all. The detention center cannot be closed fast enough.

However, a new report from human rights experts at the UC Berkeley law clinic suggests that Obama will have to be extraordinarily judicious in his treatment of the former detainees - and those who detained them. For most Americans, the nightmare of Guantanamo will be over when the center is closed, but the damage runs deep for those who were detained there. Over a two-year period, the experts in this report interviewed 62 released detainees in nine countries. Nearly two-thirds of them had psychological and emotional problems since their release. Only six of them had regular jobs. Many of them said that they arrived home to discover that they had lost their homes, businesses, or family members. They spoke of the stigma that hung over them as detainees, though the Bush administration never charged them with a crime.

No place for vacation

The implications are devastating, and they are likely to complicate the process of shutting Guantanamo: what will we do with the remaining prisoners, who have clearly suffered, who may be guilty, but - years later - still have not been charged for any crimes? Is it even possible to try them in American courts? What do we owe the released prisoners who were never charged? How can we prevent such mistakes in the future? And how do we hold our government accountable?

The report recommends the formation of an independent, nonpartisan commission, complete with subpoena power, to investigate what happened at Guantanamo. No doubt Obama will have to convene a commission to sort out the center's closure, anyway. The best thing he could do would be to give that commission the power to discover the depth of the abuses that are still occurring there, and to investigate those who are responsible for them. It will be a difficult task. Few things could be more partisan than Guantanamo. But it's a necessary step toward restoring the world's faith in American democracy, and Americans' faith in ourselves.--