Monday, November 17, 2008

More Than A Prison

Last night, in his first interview since being elected, Barack Obama told "60 Minutes" that among his top priorities is to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But, Guantanamo Bay is not just a prison, it's a state of mind, and a legal limbo in which hundreds have been trapped since 2002.

And, as what the President-elect calls "part and parcel of an effort to restore America's moral stature in the world," it's not enough to simply relocate the 250 currently housed at Gitmo to high security prisons on U.S. soil, like the proposed facility at Fort Leavenworth.

This notion of bait and switch justice doesn't cut it, especially in a technological age when information often spreads faster than the speed of light.

Nor is it morally acceptable to merely re-route detainees to countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Somalia where heinous interrogation techniques are not subject to the Geneva Conventions.

In fact, judging by our behavior, over the past six plus years, it would seem that compliance with Geneva is optional with the vehicle.

Changing the dressing on a wound doesn't heal the wound, it only covers it.

The Obama administration must take a closer look at the systemic, indigenous, corruption in the concept of military tribunal itself which is tantamount to a kangaroo court, as well as how they intend to prosecute detainees once they're returned to domestic soil, and in full compliance with the Constitution, as well as international law.

It's fine and dandy to restore due process, and attempt to undo the damage caused not just to how we look to the rest of the world, but how it is that we could twist the law such that we could hold anyone indefinitely, without charging him, without access to evidence, or counsel, for six years with impunity.

We must also ask ourselves what kind of perverse logic could come up with a designation like "unlawful enemy combatant," a phrase coined by Donald Rumsfeld and for the sole purpose of divesting detainees of rights afforded any prisoner of war.

Merely closing down the physical edifice that is Guantanamo without addressing the underlying concept behind it, and transferring detainees from Cuba to Kansas, or anywhere else in the U.S. without examining this rape of due process is not a solution, but a placebo, and an insult to the American sense of justice. As Jameel Jaffer, of the American Civil Liberties Union, says it doesn't "solve anything to close down Guantanamo to reopen it inside the US under a different name."

And, what about all the other Gitmos, the ones we don't know about in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere?

We have to address the idea, not just the physical structure. We have to ask how it is that the U.S. got to a place where it could circumvent the Magna Carta, and the Geneva Conventions, indeed, 500 years of international law, strip people of their basic rights as prisoners of war, hold them indefinitely, and under egregious conditions, grant them a dubious, abstract designation---"enemy combatant"-- bypass human rights conventions, and immunize those whose acts are criminal from being tried by setting up the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

Moreover, it's essential for this new administration to look into secret holding cells around the world, as well as the process by which prisoners are flown from countries that don't sanction torture, on paper, to those that have no proscriptions against torture.

While President-Elect Obama is about the business of using his executive order powers to undo some of the mischief of the Bush years, might we suggest he would do the country good by overturning the Military Commissions Act of 2006, too. Restoring "moral stature" isn't about cosmetic surgery. It's not about rearranging the furniture on the Titanic.

Restoring America's moral solvency is about recognizing, and admitting, to ourselves, and to the rest of the world, that we made some very big mistakes, so we can be sure to never to repeat them.

Rest assured that memories of their years at Guantanamo will be engraved in the minds of every person we detained there for as long as they live. When we close Guantanamo we must do more than shut down a prison, but the sensibility that created it.