It’s Time to Close Guantanamo?

President Obama’s plan to transport suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the United States to be tried in American criminal courts came one step closer to fruition on Tuesday when congress voted down a measure to prevent the move.  Nevertheless, those who oppose the president’s plan have not given up hope.  Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., assured Fox News on Tuesday that “the closure of Guantanamo is ‘not a fait accompli.’”

The strategy of those in opposition to the plan seems to be to stall its progress for as long as possible, hoping that the closer to the congressional elections in next November we get, the fewer senators will be able to afford supporting the president on this one, and… they may be right.  Public support for the measure isn’t exactly soaring.

According to Rasmussen Reports, 51% of American voters oppose the president’s plan to try suspected 9/11 terrorists in New York.  Only 30% of American voters believe that suspected terrorists should have access to U.S. courts.  And, 55% of Americans are opposed to the president’s plan to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention center by January.  Support for the plan has been shrinking pretty much since it was announced.  With numbers like these, what incumbent would want voters going into the booth with their support for such an unpopular plan fresh on their minds?

These numbers reflect a number of concerns among Americans about the president’s plan.  Some fear that housing accused terrorists in American prisons near American communities will put those communities at risk by encouraging terrorist attacks in these areas.  Others are worried about opening up not so old wounds by bringing the people responsible for so much bloodshed right into the communities that they terrorized.  Many simply feel that terrorists don’t deserve the benefits of our legal system, with all of its guaranteed rights and fair treatment and all, after what they are accused of (and what some have admitted to).

While all of these concerns are rational, I believe that the harm of following the same old course and the benefits of the proposed change in policy far outweigh any potential risks associated with the president’s plan.  I don’t doubt that trying suspected terrorists in American courts would serve as a reminder to those who have already suffered too much because of the inexcusable acts of terrorists.  Trials are always emotionally difficult for those who have suffered because of the accused.  And where, as here, the harm suffered has been great, so too must its reminder be correlatively difficult.

Many of the survivors of the victims of 9/11 are, however, supportive of the president’s plan.  Some see a criminal trial as a long awaited opportunity for closure.  John Feal, a New Yorker who lost half of a foot at ground zero, sees a criminal trial in New York as “poetic justice,” and warns those who fear further attacks that “if you’re afraid of terrorists, then they’ve already won.”

Feal’s warning should be heralded.  Much of our response to the 9/11 massacre has amounted to victories for terrorists, who could wish for nothing better than the opportunity to paint the United States as the evil empire that they imagine it to be.  Guantanamo Bay is one of the central symbols of our post 9/11 mistakes.  I won’t present the argument that Guantanamo Bay and the policies that it symbolizes were a mistake, but if you have any question, I suggest that you read an earlier blog posted in March on this sight by the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell titled Some Truths about Guantanamo Bay.  (Here’s the url to that post http://acs.blogs.wm.edu/2009/03/16/some-truths-about-guantanamo-bay/)

Furthermore, the argument that our justice system is just too good for the likes of terrorists misses the point of submitting these guys to the criminal justice system.  We either label terrorists criminals, as we have always done in the past, or we call them combatants, as has become vogue today.  General Wesley Clark, among others, has warned against treating terrorists as combatants in a war.  His concern is partly that such a term, in fact, lends legitimacy to their efforts:  It “dignifies criminality by according terrorist killers the status of soldiers.”   Treating these people like criminals engaged in the unjustified killing of civilians is not too good for these people;  It is treating them like soldiers engaged in combat that is too good for them.

It is true that our criminal justice system offers rights and protections even to the likes of terrorists.  It is also true that terrorists would not afford us the same rights were the tables turned.  But, that we can grant such rights even to the worst criminals in the world is a sign of our strength.  It’s also what differentiates us from them.   Our criminal justice system can obtain justice without rejecting the basic assumption that all human beings ought to be afforded a trial that accords with our values as a nation.  This basic assumption is the backbone of our justice system.  Without it, we would not be who we are.

We don’t ensure fair trials for even the most vicious of criminals because it is what they deserve.  We do so because it is what we, as an advanced western society with a profound respect for justice and human dignity, demand.  The perpetrators of the 9/11 massacre are criminals.  They deserve, just like other heinous criminals responsible for untold destruction of human life (think Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski) to be brought to justice.  And we deserve not to have our hands bloodied in the process by sacrificing our values on the altar of fear.

Websites referenced in the blog, in the order in which they appear:
http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/11/17/republicans-chances-block-gitmo-prisoners-soil/
http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/august_2009/75_worried_that_gitmo_closing_will_set_dangerous_terrorists_free/
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,575110,00.html
http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dc/2009/11/911-survivors-see-justice-in-n.html
http://acs.blogs.wm.edu/2009/03/16/some-truths-about-guantanamo-bay/
Image courtesy of Amnesty International

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Published in: on November 18, 2009 at 8:03 pm Comments Off on It’s Time to Close Guantanamo?

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