One of Barack Obama’s pledges when he first ran for the presidency, you may recall, was to close down Guantanamo Bay prison where a large number of political prisoners were being held after the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Many of these men were later found to be innocent and released and others who might have been involved in the attacks but were no longer deemed a threat to the nation were released or sent to other countries who were willing to take a chance on their innocence. But in the interim they were held without the benefit of a trial and subjected to inhumane treatment, even torture, according to reports that leaked out later on. And 112 of them remain in prison at Guantanamo Bay to this day. Obama was on the moral high ground when he pledged to close down that place.
But his first attempt during his first term was met with screams of execration from frightened citizens and especially the Republicans in Congress who had pledged to fight Obama every step of the way during his presidency and were certainly not going to stand by idly while he transferred terrorists to this country where they might commit unknown atrocities because of their proximity to old ladies with gray hair and innocent children. Emotions ran high and the president backed down, sad to say. Well, as he approaches the end of his tenure as president, apparently he is now ready to give it another try. In the wake of rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline recently he announced his determination once again to fulfill his campaign promise to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. As a recent Yahoo News story tells us, in part:
The new closure proposal, drafted by Obama’s top counterterror advisor, Lisa Monaco, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter would lift congressional restrictions on transferring detainees to the United States.
Inmates who cannot be released or transferred abroad would be housed at a US facility like Fort Leavenworth, Kansas or the Navy Brig in Charleston, South Carolina.
But that plan looks increasingly unlikely to pass muster in the Republican controlled Congress, raising the prospect of executive action, which would ignite a political firestorm.
In 2009 Obama issued an executive order to close the camp, prompting a furious Congress to pass rules that made the transfer of detainees to US soil all but impossible.
The White House has long said those rules are unconstitutional as they impinge on executive power. But it has tried to have them overturned rather than engage in a damaging political fight.
He has apparently decided to evoke executive privilege once again and risk the political firestorm that is sure to follow because he wants his legacy to read that he is a man of his word. Or so the story goes. He has certainly shown courage and deserves our applause in refusing to buckle down to the crazies in Congress on the Keystone Pipeline. I choose to believe he is thinking of his legacy and sincerely hope he gives Congress the finger once again before fading into the sunset. Heaven knows he hasn’t shown much moral courage to this point in his presidency.
But the fact remains that there are still 112 men incarcerated in that prison who have been there, subjected to inhumane treatment for nearly fourteen years and they have never even been tried. And this in a country whose legal system prides itself on the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. It remains a fact that even if these men are transferred to prisons in this country they will remain men who are incarcerated without the benefit of that trial.
There is a political issue here, to be sure, but there is also the larger moral issue. Transferring the prisoners will raise hell in Congress and across the nation by people who are afraid of their own shadow and think every person with dark skin is a terrorist. But continuing to hold them without trial, wherever they are held, does not solve the moral issue, even though closing down Guantanamo prison might seem to have done so. It’s a good first step. But it is only a first step — if we are to pride ourselves on doing the right thing.