Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gitmo or Else?

With President Obama’s announcement that he plans to close Guantanamo within a year there has been an increasingly vocal segment of the population sounding the terrorist alarm. The biggest concern being echoed is what to do with these 250 avowed and unrepentant terrorists who surely if they were released would go back and continue their destructive ways. I found it interesting that following his announcement it was released that a one-time detainee who was released from Guantanamo is now the deputy leader of the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen as if to further undermine closing the base by the military community.

The problem I have with the release of the report is that it is sensationalism and simplistic. There is no discussion or debate of the fact that just like with Iraq we may have created terrorists by our response to the terrorist threat. In the haste to locate and prosecute terrorists it is now being confirmed that there were many innocent people who were held and tortured. Rather than acknowledge that our reaction to the threat may have in turn increased the threat we ignore it and continue our reactionary policies. Who knows how many otherwise neutral observers we have turned into terrorist through our prosecution of terrorist? The chicken hawks would have us believe that this is irrelevant, but in fact it is relevant in how we proceed in prosecuting this so-called war. If we continue creating terrorists where none existed before our efforts will be unfruitful and counter-productive.

So the question has now become what to do with these terrorist suspects now being held at Guantanamo and any future suspects we may capture during this ongoing war against terror? Are we to continue to prosecute them by military tribunal, our federal court system, or some hybrid of the two? And once found guilty where will these convicted terrorists be housed for the remainder of their incarceration? While these questions seem new and vitality important the truth is they are not new. 9/11 was not the first terrorist attack on American soil or the first terrorist plot to attack the US mainland.

There have been 3 terrorist attacks on US soil and I think it is important to review how the first 2 were treated and prosecuted to our discussion of current policy. The first was the original al Qaeda plot to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 and the second was the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In both cases we were able to prosecute and sentence the defendants using our current justice system with some modifications. I don’t understand why in order to prosecute these defendants currently held in Guantanamo we need to create a separate justice system? The problem with using a separate military justice system is you give a form of legitimacy to the notion that these are war crimes when in fact they are not. Terrorism is a criminal act perpetrated by criminals. It is not a legitimate and recognizable form of war and it never has been. These people need to be treated like the criminals they are. We should not have to sacrifice our principles of democracy to bring these criminals to justice. Without the rule of law we open ourselves up to the real possibility that we are extracting revenge and not justice.

If these people are in fact enemy combatants then they need to be treated like prisoners of war. We must accept the possibility that not every enemy combatant is a terrorist. If they are prisoners of war then they are the responsibility of the military in accordance with the Geneva Convention. The problem with the Bush administration is that they wanted the best of both worlds. They wanted to hold the prisoners in both terrorist and prisoner of war status. Declaring their status only as it suited their aims not necessarily based on the facts at hand. This arbitrary justice created the atmosphere that allowed torture and imprisonment of innocents. As long as we keep these people in an undeclared status we open ourselves up to the calls of hypocrisy and undermine our own democratic principles.

Despite the hyperbole and demagoguery of the Republicans speaking as if our only two choices are Gitmo or allowing the terrorists to walk American streets, we have many other options. Despite their recent defeats at the polls and in public opinion polls the Republicans are still clinging to their number one and what seems to be their only tactic left; fear. If we close Gitmo we will have terrorists living in our communities. What these fear mongers fail to disclose is that we have already had terrorists “living” in our communities. They have been living in prisons and for many years these prisons have managed to protect us from all sorts of nefarious characters. However, in order to advance their agenda the Republicans would have us believe that these terrorists somehow possess super-human traits that make it impossible to house them anywhere but Guantanamo. These people are just ordinary humans. I guess if you give them super-natural powers it justifies your inability to capture or defeat them.

As far as housing these convicted terrorists I find it hard to believe that a country with over 2 million people incarcerated cannot find a way to house these criminals in a humane and secure manor. Let’s face it we lead the world in incarceration rates so what’s another 250 or so more? We must no longer continue to allow the perceived threat to override the principals we stand for. If we do that those principles will have little meaning not only to the rest of the world but to us as well. We have to begin to bring some transparency to these proceedings or they will always be viewed by the rest of the world as tainted by Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram.

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