Sometimes the absurdities of an official policy or action are so clear that they need not be elucidated. Such is the case with the Obama administration’s maintenance of the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, a grotesque place that only the novelist Franz Kafka, who wrote brilliantly of nightmarish milieu, could adequately describe.
Last week, President Barack Obama told reporters that he intends to once again press Congress to close the facility, as he had promised to do in his first campaign. But there is no indication that the president intends to devote any of his remaining political capital to the task — any more than he did during his first term.
Still, Obama was right about this much: Everything about the prison is “contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.” So, when will it be shut down? How long will the United States continue a policy that alienates our allies, inflames our enemies, and sullies our image as a defender of human rights around the world?
Most Americans tend to think of Guantánamo as a prison for murderous jihadists — those, for example, who helped Osama bin Laden carry out the 9/11 attacks. In fact, most of Guantánamo’s remaining 166 inhabitants are unlikely to ever be charged with any crime.
Indeed, 86 of them have already been fully or conditionally cleared for release by courts or government national security agencies. But most of those are Yemenis, and Obama doesn’t want to send them home for fear they will fall in with Yemen’s al Qaeda arm. So they are stuck in limbo.
(Here’s the irony: If they had not been kept so long in brutal confinement, they might have gone home as defenders of U.S. interests. After years of cruel detention, however, they might well be risks to U.S. security.)
Some of the other 80 or so detainees may be terrorists, but only six currently face military commissions. The government has reason to suspect others of terrorist connections, but it has little evidence it can use in court.
Still others may have been confined because of identity mixups, finger-pointing by suspect informants, or simply the widespread paranoia that gripped the U.S. national security apparatus following 9/11. For example, in the case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi — whose handwritten memoir of torture and incarceration has recently been published by Slate, an online news magazine — the U.S. government simply seems unable to admit that he is not a terrorist. A federal judge has ordered Slahi’s release, but the Obama administration has appealed. He has been detained at Guantánamo Bay for 11 years.
It’s no wonder, then, that dozens of detainees at Guantánamo are now conducting a hunger strike. But because Guantánamo writes its own rules of logic, several of those prisoners are being force-fed. The Pentagon has sent in medical personnel to strap them down and force tubes down their noses and into their stomachs, through which cans of nutrients are poured. That procedure, by the way, violates medical ethics, according to the American Medical Association, because patients should be able to refuse medical treatment.
Last month, one of the detainees, Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, published an opinion essay in The New York Times about his ordeal: “I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way,” he wrote. He is among those who has never been charged with a crime, much less convicted of one.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this mess. In Obama’s first term, Republicans and Democrats alike seized the opportunity to demagogue about Guantánamo, insisting the men held there are too dangerous to be housed in high-security U.S. prisons. That’s nonsense.
But Obama shares responsibility — especially for the men already cleared for release. If he believes that it is unfair, unjust and downright un-American to hold them any longer — and it is — he should restart the process to send them home.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Gino Reyes