Guantánamo reveals America’s true character — how one cowboy president was replaced by another

“I don’t want to just end the war, I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place,” Barack Obama said referring to Iraq while campaigning in January 2008.

On January 22, 2009, two days after taking office, Obama appeared to be making good on that aspiration as he signed an executive order which said: “The detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order.”

At the time, his decision was hailed by commentators as a sign of presidential boldness, yet four years later it’s clear to most observers that whatever Obama’s virtues might be, they don’t seem to include courage.

In the 2008 election campaign, the promise to close Guantánamo seemed to play well as it dovetailed into a widely felt disenchantment with the war in Iraq. Americans were tired of the war and ready to move on — like selling off a bad investment — and closing Guantánamo made sense as part of that wider sentiment.

Even so, by February 2012, three years after the prison was supposed to have been shut down, 70% of Americans approved of the fact that it remained open. An even higher number — 83% — approved of drone warfare. In other words, there was overwhelming support for Obama’s de facto policy of killing rather than capturing suspected terrorists.

If initial support for the prison’s closure had much to do with the idea that it was a stain on America’s image, it’s hard to see why the same reasoning would not also apply to the use of drones.

Guantánamo became a stain on America because through its use of torture and disregard for legal rights and due process, it mirrored the forms of governance to which this nation claims it is opposed.

Yet drone warfare is the modern counterpart of sending out a posse. Its purpose is to hunt down outlaws and serve summary justice. The fact that it is bad for America’s image is of much less significance — inside America — than the fact that it resonates with a deeply rooted American conception of the rule of law. The best way to deal with bad guys is to shoot ’em.

Obama’s dubious accomplishment is that he has replaced a president who favored cowboy rhetoric with one who spurns such language yet perpetuates the cowboy mentality.

Since he has suffered no domestic political cost for failing to close Guantánamo, and since his promotion of vigilantism has proved so popular, why would the president now be moved by appeals by editorial writers (such as the one below) or human rights activists?

Indeed, at a time when senators are calling for the surviving Boston bomber to be shipped off to Guantánamo, Obama is less likely than ever to make a concerted effort to close the facility.

But there is one fact that Americans should consider at this time: when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gets the trial to which he is entitled, what will differentiate him from the prisoners at Guantánamo is not the danger that each pose; it is that whereas Tsarnaev stands accused of a crime, nearly all the prisoners that America chooses to forget stand accused of nothing whatsoever.

Their ‘crime’ is that they are not American. That they have been deprived of justice is a testimony to American Islamophobia and xenophobia.

A New York Times editorial says: All five living presidents gathered in Texas Thursday for a feel-good moment at the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, which is supposed to symbolize the legacy that Mr. Bush has been trying to polish. President Obama called it a “special day for our democracy.” Mr. Bush spoke about having made “the tough decisions” to protect America. They all had a nice chuckle when President Bill Clinton joked about former presidents using their libraries to rewrite history.

But there is another building, far from Dallas on land leased from Cuba, that symbolizes Mr. Bush’s legacy in a darker, truer way: the military penal complex at Guantánamo Bay where Mr. Bush imprisoned hundreds of men after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a vast majority guilty of no crime.

It became the embodiment of his dangerous expansion of executive power and the lawless detentions, secret prisons and torture that went along with them. It is now also a reminder of Mr. Obama’s failure to close the prison as he promised when he took office, and of the malicious interference by Congress in any effort to justly try and punish the Guantánamo inmates.

There are still 166 men there — virtually all of them held without charges, some for more than a decade. More than half have been cleared for release but are still imprisoned because of a law that requires individual Pentagon waivers. The administration eliminated the State Department post charged with working with other countries to transfer the prisoners so those waivers might be issued.

Of the rest, some are said to have committed serious crimes, including terrorism, but the military tribunals created by Mr. Bush are dysfunctional and not credible, despite Mr. Obama’s improvements. Congress long ago banned the transfer of prisoners to the federal criminal justice system where they belong and are far more likely to receive fair trials and long sentences if convicted.

Only six are facing active charges. Nearly 50 more are deemed too dangerous for release but not suitable for trial because they are not linked to any specific attack or because the evidence against them is tainted by torture.

The result of this purgatory of isolation was inevitable. Charlie Savage wrote in The Times on Thursday about a protest that ended in a raid on Camp Six, where the most cooperative prisoners are held. A hunger strike in its third month includes an estimated 93 prisoners, twice as many as were participating before the raid. American soldiers have been reduced to force-feeding prisoners who are strapped to chairs with a tube down their throats.

That prison should never have been opened. It was nothing more than Mr. Bush’s attempt to evade accountability by placing prisoners in another country. The courts rejected that ploy, but Mr. Bush never bothered to fix the problem. Now, shockingly, the Pentagon is actually considering spending $200 million for improvements and expansions clearly aimed at a permanent operation.

Polls show that Americans are increasingly indifferent to the prison. We received a fair amount of criticism recently for publishing on our Op-Ed page a first-person account from one of the Guantánamo hunger strikers.

But whatever Mr. Bush says about how comfortable he is with his “tough” choices, the country must recognize the steep price being paid for what is essentially a political prison. Just as hunger strikes at the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland indelibly stained Britain’s human rights record, so Guantánamo stains America’s.

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4 thoughts on “Guantánamo reveals America’s true character — how one cowboy president was replaced by another

  1. rosemerry

    Olease tell me why Cuba cannot repudiate the “deal” that allows the USA to base prisoners, or anyone, on its land while fifty years of cruel US sanctions keep Cuba from being accepted as a free country.

  2. Norman

    One answer to Rosemary, IMHO, is Cuba is a little Island off the U.S. Coast, which can be squashed like a bug anytime the U.S. wants it to happen. Much easier to be a bully in your own back yard, than in the M.E., as we have found out the hard way. Quite telling considering how treat the poor people here at home.

  3. BillVZ

    Over the past weeks there have been several op-eds by Paul Woodword. While my memory is spotty on this, I do not recall reading any reader response to his writing or content regarding them. Perhaps it is just because readers expect such quality from him or…? For one who offers a great web site, does most of the organizing himself and finds the time to present his views accordingly- I would like to assert that he should enjoy responses that offer appreciation and thanks-‘every now and then’
    Thanks for todays post Paul- your remarks are well taken.

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