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The Gitmo Distraction

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America's charade of change comes complete with national "debate" and a slight readjustment of the center to accommodate the Bush Lite policies of the Obama presidency.

What matters is that any change President Obama proposes be symbolic rather than substantive. A furious battle then ensues over the symbolic change so that, if it does finally come to pass -- with the president weathering the endless flow of invective and fear-mongering from the Republican right -- it will appear as though something was actually accomplished.

Meanwhile, business as usual holds course. The great swell of hope for a renewal of American society that swept Obama into office -- for a real accounting of the crimes of the Bush administration, not to mention a reversal of its most heinous policies and a return to value-based governance -- dissipates into the vague, scattered disappointment of millions of supporters, who once again have no focus for their disaffection.

And nowhere does this scenario hold sway more than in regard to the treatment of detainees in the war on terror and the continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Shutting down this facility, ending the abuse and indefinite detention of the prisoners and giving them fair trials -- in civilian courts, not military tribunals -- were among the most passionate and immediate demands of the Obama base. It was an obvious place to start: the place for the president of hope and change to gain traction for moral renewal and the undoing of the Bush era.

With Obama's ascendancy, common sense -- and the great yearning of so many Americans for governance based on fairness, for policies that pursued justice rather than war and did not dehumanize people -- seemed to regain the center of American society. But this was not, in fact, the case. Common sense is still marginalized as "the left," counterweighted in the media by the intensifying stridency of the highly organized and well-financed Republican right.

Thus, the Obama administration's attempt to close Gitmo -- just that, minus any accompanying change in policy that would make this action meaningful -- is consuming pretty much all the political capital the administration has to spare, as the Republicans, led by House Minority Leader John Boehner, emit cries that fall just short of "Treason!"

"And they can do the tribunals right there at Guantanamo," Boehner, speaking for the dug-in right, said this week on CNN's "State of the Union." "There's no reason to bring these terrorists into the United States. No reason to increase the threat level here -- because they're here, their friends may want to come." And he added that Guantanamo is a "world-class facility."

This, then, is the "debate" as it is being played out in the media. It begins with most Bush-era assumptions still intact. The prisoners, shut in their cages like dangerous beasts all these years, are obviously bad people -- terrorists -- whose shackled, heavily guarded presence anywhere on America's sacred soil is an outrage and a danger. This is the blather of security clowns, unconnected to reality, but no matter. It skews the issue.

The issue is no longer the enormous betrayal of American values that resulted in the establishment of indefinite-detention facilities for Muslim men rounded up in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and Central Asia, often in dragnets inspired by U S. bounty payments, who were then held without charges, frequently tortured and denied a chance to prove their innocence. This was done in defiance of world opinion and the Geneva Conventions, inspiring hatred of the U.S., guaranteeing a prolonged "war on terror" and demonstrably making us less safe. But let's not talk about that now.

If the whole issue is shutting down Gitmo because the rest of the world hates it, then the deal in the works between the Obama administration and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is the solution: Obama abandons his decision to try Khalid Shiekh Mohammad in a civilian court in New York, and Graham pushes Congress to abandon legislation denying funding to close Gitmo. For working with Obama, Graham has been accused of making a deal with the devil, among much else.

But maybe this high-cost deal will come to pass and, while the concept of real rather than show trials for detainees will have been abandoned, Gitmo will wind up shutting down. Phew, America's blot of shame removed. We can all move on.

But will it be hollow symbolism, with no real change? Will the prisoners just be shunted elsewhere, still without access to justice? Certainly there will be no deeper push for an accounting from Bush administration officials about torture and other war crimes.

And what about Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where conditions are likely worse than Guantanamo? The ACLU continues to press a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to get information about the facility's 750 or so detainees; so far, crucial information, such as the circumstances of their arrests, has been redacted. Bush, the consensus worst president ever, lives on in the policies of his successor.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)

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