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Bob Ostertag

Bob Ostertag

Posted: May 24, 2009 11:41 AM

Guantanamo in Plain English


The problem of what to do with the American prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, and the prisoners it holds, is admittedly complex and can obscure some relatively simple ideas at the heart of the matter.

For starters, let's look at Dick Cheney's argument, echoed by some Republicans and Democrats too, that it would be too dangerous to house the Guantanamo prisoners in a prison within US borders. Cheney's claims that prison would then become a likely terrorist target.

If this is true, then any prison outside US borders that housed these prisoners would expose whoever lived around that prison to the same dangers. Put simply, Cheney is arguing that the US has the right to detain prisoners only so long as the risks that accompany the detention are born by the citizens of other countries and not Americans.

Of course, no one is volunteering to perform this service for such scaredy-cat Americans, which is why the prisoners are currently held in Cuba, where the other people who live on the island have no way to voice their own opinions on the matter.

Or take Obama's promise he made a couple of days ago to "construct a legitimate legal framework" to justify the detention of dangerous terrorism suspects who supposedly cannot be tried or released, The plain fact is that this is impossible. What makes a legal framework legitimate is that it is used in a consistent manner to determine who to imprison and who to set free. If you imprison people first, and then construct a legal framework to justify their detention, the legal framework is not legitimate. No lofty rhetoric or national interest can change this. One might as well argue that 1+1=2, except when sufficiently weighty American national interests are at stake, in which case the sum is 3.

The Obama administration has stated repeatedly that the knot at the center of their Guantanamo dilemma is what to do with prisoners "who pose a national security threat but cannot be prosecuted, either for lack of evidence or because evidence is tainted." This is another 1+1=3 sort of argument. If the evidence against a prisoner is tainted, or if there isn't any, then how do we know the prisoner is a national security threat?

The most chilling statements imply that there are some Guantanamo prisoners who would not have been threats to alleged US national security interests before their incarceration, but now that they have undergone extensive torture at the hands of Americans and thus have every reason to view the US as their enemy, it would be a national security risk to set them free. Translated into plain English, the assertion here is that when the national interest requires it, innocent foreigners must be made to serve indefinite prison sentences for crimes committed by their American jailers.

The bizarre idea that Americans can be made safer by treating the citizens of other countries so unjustly will surely come back to haunt this country. This might be a good time to remember that this country emerged from a struggle in which people took up arms against England for the crime of taxation without representation, a trivial slight compared with those the US in now committing.