Friday, February 25, 2011

The Challenge of Guantanamo

by Richard Crews
Some prisoners of war--the argument goes--are too dangerous to be released, but cannot be tried for their crimes in a court of law because the evidence against them is too shaky, perhaps because it was gathered on a battlefield rather than at a "crime scene" (where careful, knowledgeable arresting officers would gather, identify, and protect the evidence from loss and misrepresentation), or it was acquired under torture (which makes it unreliable since anyone subject to enough pain and fear will admit to anything).

These prisoners pose a difficult dilemma, legally and morally. On the one hand, they cannot be released; on the other, they cannot be tried. Countries around the world have refused to take these dangerous prisoners off our hands. U.S. courts, both civilian and military, have found it impossible to process them.

To house them, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was created. Importantly, it is not on U.S. soil and it does not hold U.S. citizens; it is therefore beyond the reach of U.S. justice. There, these prisoners are held indefinitely in a kind of legal limbo--without being sentenced, without rights, without hope--and, by the way, at enormous expense to their captors, both financially, and especially politically.

Civil libertarians around the world have been enraged at the abuse of human rights at Guantanamo. President Obama campaigned on the promise that he would close the prison at Guantanamo. But politicians' promises--like those made by a lover in the heat of passion--are notoriously unreliable. It is now well past the closure deadline Obama set for himself, and still there are some 200 prisoners at Guantanamo--and there is little prospect that any will be leaving soon.

True, some things have changed. A few years ago, Guantanamo was a snake pit of abuse. Prisoners were kept shackled in small, isolated cages. They received poor food and health care, little exercise, no social contacts (with outsiders, other prisoners, the press, human rights workers, or even their lawyers), and they were subject to constant physical and psychological harassment. Most of this barbaric savagery has been ameliorated.

But the problem will not go away. Not, for most of these men, until death--the last and highest court of appeals--releases them from their suffering. And even then others will follow them. In a world of terrorism and ethnic rivalries, of political domination and suppression, of haves and have-nots, there will always be some from whom society must insulate itself, but who do not fall within the convenient definitions of "criminals."

The resolution--the future of Guantanamo--is to create a model for the world to see: to demonstrate how a democratic, humanitarian society deals with impossible people. These prisoners may have to remain prisoners--indefinitely. But the conditions of their incarceration should be as humane as possible: healthful (physically and emotionally), respectful (of both their legal and human rights), and transparent--for their friends and families, human rights workers, lawyers, and the press to shine the disinfecting power of sunlight on their poor estates.

That is the challenge of Guantanamo--for the U.S. to accept the necessity of doing this impossible job, and to do it well.