Closing a prison is harder than it looks.
Recently, the Senate rejected President Obama's request for $80 million to close Guantanamo Bay military prison. In response, Obama announced that he would close the prison with or without support, saying that it is time to "clean up the mess.”
It was in January, on his second day in office, that Obama signed an executive order to close Gitmo. Located in southeast Cuba, some 90 miles from Florida, Guantanamo has held up to 800 prisoners and now holds around 250.
Built to detain enemy combatants, it has become synonymous with torture over the past seven years. Many detainees have been held for years without charges.
Greg Monfils, an Urban School of San Francisco teacher who follows constitutional law issues, said that “Guantanamo was an effort by the Bush Administration to circumvent the habeas corpus guarantees of the Constitution.” Habeas corpus states that a person who is put under arrest is told the charges for his or her detention.
Given this, closing Guantanamo seems straightforward, except for one small question: where will all the detainees go?
Relocating detainees to the United States?
It seems fair to say that terrorist suspects won’t be welcome in most neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, a group called Military Families United, with tens of thousands of members, is circulating a petition to make sure that the suspected terrorists are not relocated into any of their towns or cities.
Congressman Bill Young (R-Fla.), said that “there's a lot of discomfort about the idea of bringing the detainees into the United States. That's why I've suggested Alcatraz." House Minority Leader John Boehner echoed the idea, saying "if the liberals in America believe that Gitmo ought to go, then maybe we ought to just open Alcatraz and move those prisoners there."
Recently, the city of Hardin, Montana, population 3,384, has volunteered to house the Guantanamo Bay detainees in its empty state-of-the-art prison. Apparently, the need for jobs in a poor economy outweighs the risk involved in inviting terrorists into their town.
Yet another possibility is sending detainees back to their own countries, but that could expose them to torture and even death.
Monfils talked about a group of 17 Chinese Muslims being held at Guantanamo; the United States has determined them to be no threat, and has cleared them for release.
Unfortunately, “we are afraid that if we send them back to China they will be tortured,” Monfils said. Some countries are afraid to take the prisoners for fear of angering China.
“The Bush administration made a mess , ” Monfils said, adding, “it takes time to clean up a mess.”
Earlier releases of detainees also have contributed to the difficulties of releasing more.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell disclosed on Feb. 7 that even after a rehabilitation program, 18 former Guantanamo detainees are known to have joined terrorist groups and 43 more are suspected of terrorist activities. In January, a video posted on a militant leaning website with Said Ali al-Shihri, a former Guantanamo detainee, gave evidence that he is now the deputy leader of Al Qaedain Yemen. Such information will make it harder for the Obama administration to work towards closing Guantanamo.
Restoring America's credibility
Amid all this debate, one thing is clear: Guantanamo Bay is a symbol of the terrible practices the United States has used in the war on terror. “The torture that [was] performed at Guantanamo Bay is completely incongruous with the principles of our nation,” says Urban School student Lindsay Welch.
Monfils predicts that “the Obama administration will have to be particularly careful in the course of the year with what they do with some of these detainees. There will be a balancing act between our ideals and our safety.” To be sure, while closing Guantanamo will be difficult, restoring America’s moral and political credibility requires it.
Along with closing Gitmo should come an overall change in U.S. policy regarding other prisons that America creates or maintains throughout the world. The conflict in Iraq, along with an increasingly heated war inAfghanistan, will provide plenty of opportunities to do the wrong thing — to create another Guantanamo Bay prison, where human rights are not defended.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has said that prisoners held at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan are not guaranteed constitutional rights.
Incredibly, the Justice Department argued that because prisoners are in a war zone, holding trials could threaten the security of U.S. judges and lawyers brought in to help with the legal process.
That is just plain wrong. Obama said as much last January in his inaugural speech,when he declared that“as for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” In Afghanistan, apparently the choice between our safety and ideals has already been made.
If the sad and embarassing story of Gitmo has taught us anything, it’s that we have to do what’s right — even if that means giving our enemies the same constitutional and human rights they'd like to take away from us.