02/01/2011 09:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Should We Embrace Guantánamo Bay?

While I cringe to point readers to a blog with such a howler for a title, there's a colloquy going on at 'Lawfare' that is worth checking out.

Ben Wittes is a Brookings fellow who positions himself as a centrist. A year on from the deadline to close Guantánamo, Mr. Wittes has issued a provocative thesis: Obama should give up and just embrace the prison.

Instead of fecklessly continuing to argue for the closure of Guantanamo, Obama should announce that since Congress has made closure impossible, he is committing himself to making Guantánamo a symbol not of excess, not of lawlessness and evasion of judicial review, but of detention under the rule of law.

To be fair to Mr. Wittes, his is a less craven argument than you would get from, say, a Marc Thiessen or a John Yoo. It is partly a call for honesty about US policy objectives. It is also an insidious argument for an exceptionalist detention system, but others have walloped that idea in ways I won't try to improve upon. The part of Wittes' argument I want to engage is this: why not just press 'reset' on the whole question, he says, and present the 'new' prison to the world straightforwardly? Why not make 2011 Gitmo Year Zero?

Of course, the first question this raises is: how do you start over without burying what was done in our name? You have to see the key problem as one of system or symbol, and not of people in boxes, for this concept even to make sense.

The chief problem with such an idea is obvious: there can be no blank page on Gitmo. The debate has become at once so poisoned, so calcified, and so removed from the prisoners whose fate it involves that it is impossible to begin anew.

Mr. Wittes, not even Barack Obama can persuade the peoples of Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan that Guantánamo has ceased to be a bad idea. We deal regularly in quixotic ideas at Reprieve, but that fails even our 'laugh test'. Sure, it's possible that Guantánamo has faded as a grievance before Obama's failure to deliver hope and change -- the administration's tepid response to the groundswell against Arab despots just the latest example. But a grievance it is, and will remain.

Turning homewards, the prospects for a fresh start are bleaker still. There is no unsaying what has been said about the prisoners -- not least because ideologues and pundits still regularly take up the cudgels. Where is the space, Mr. Wittes, in the American polity today to consider the questions you raise in a serious, adult debate? Less likely still, who in the mainstream will consider, much less answer, the question a fellow habeas lawyer put to you:

The real question is whether we are a people who must hold a Taliban private until the Greek Kalends in order to feel safe. And we content to debate forever over how to try an alleged war criminal, rather than actually trying him? The Congress says we are that timorous a people. They appear to be right. We're not our grandfathers, that's for sure.

So you cannot start over, I'm afraid. But on one point Mr. Wittes is absolutely right -- we could all use a bracing dose of honesty.

What would an honest debate on Gitmo look like in 2011? I start from the vantage point of the human beings I still visit, whose beards go grey while we all pontificate. The vast majority of remaining prisoners are -- even if we accept the entirety of the government's case as true -- no worse than Taliban footsoldiers. On a test of the evidence, most prove to be less even than that. Holding them for almost a decade has been staggeringly pointless. It has taught us nothing. Factor in how they were treated, and this is moral poverty of the first order.

A final aside for the readers at home: within an hour of tripping over this Gitmo exchange, I noticed a counterpoint in Ken Macdonald's new report on UK counterterrorism powers:

The first duty of the State is to protect its citizens and so it is rarely difficult to justify increasing State power. But the promise of total security is an illusion that would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile. Perhaps we need a more adult relationship between the citizen and the State, that recognises the fact that some risks are worth running in order to enjoy liberty.

I have approached the task the Home Secretary has given me with a simple premise: the British are strong and free people, and their laws should reflect this.

Quite. These are the ideas that, in mainstream US conversation, have all but gone silent.