It seems that some members of Congress and various political pundits must live in an alternate version of the United States, unaware that American prisons now safely house convicted terrorists. As President Obama discusses how to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and what to do with its inmates, some of our leaders have lost complete faith in the ability of our justice and correctional systems to function. The argument goes that if we move the alleged terrorists now held in Cuba to U.S. soil, American lives will be placed in danger. I disagree.
Apparently the talking heads have forgotten Zacarias Moussaoui, Richard Reid and Jose Padilla, among other convicted terrorists now imprisoned in some of this nation's most secure facilities. Do you suddenly feel in danger? I don't, and I doubt I would feel in any greater danger if the detainees currently in Guantanamo joined the current prison population. Despite the horror of 9/11, the one and only time I personally felt in danger from a terrorist-style attack was when John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo went on their sniper spree in Washington, D.C. back in 2002. Simply pumping gas became an act of courage. But here we are several years later with both men convicted and in prison.
For the most recent example, consider that on Thursday, May 21, four Americans and one Haitian were arrested for plotting to bomb two Jewish community centers and possibly bring down military planes. Sounds pretty bad. But these men will be imprisoned here at home, in someone's back yard. But won't that put Americans at risk? Maybe they should be transferred to Gitmo -- but, of course, they won't be. If our court and prison system can handle these men, why can't they handle the worst of the worst from Guantanamo Bay?
Sure, there's always the risk that a prisoner will escape, but we live with that reality every day. Given the right conditions and a little luck, a convicted murderer or rapist might slip free from the guards and then appear on the next episode of "America's Most Wanted." I'm more worried about these guys, your garden-variety criminals. Terrorists are high-maintenance bad guys. They need plans, financing, co-conspirators, blueprints, ingredients for bombs, safe houses and so on. It takes time to pull that together. But your average murderer just needs a handy gun or knife and adequate motivation to kill again.
I want Gitmo closed because it represents America at its worst. Bring those detainees here, charge them, try them and, if evidence wins out, imprison them. If not, deport them. I think we're getting caught up in technicalities. If we had caught any of these guys on U.S. soil, they'd be in a U.S. prison right now. But I'm supposed to believe that they're so much more dangerous only because they were captured in another country? At this level, how do you evaluate how dangerous a criminal is? Are John Muhammad and Lee Malvo somehow less dangerous than a Gitmo detainee?
President Obama apparently thinks so, saying that some detainees are simply "too dangerous" and may never be charged with a crime. But that excuse sounds like the same one governments in Cuba, China and elsewhere use when they hold political prisoners. Yet when those governments say prisoners are too dangerous to be tried in court or released, we cry "human rights abuse!"
And what does this debate say about our prison system? If we can trust the most secure facilities in this nation to contain serial killers and violent drug dealers, will the walls just collapse in the face of a "real" terrorist, whatever that means?
If we cannot find a way to charge these individuals at Gitmo with a crime, and if we doubt the ability of our judicial and corrections systems to adequately prosecute and contain them -- while keeping Americans safe -- then we truly are in great danger. It means our institutions are broken, we are at heart hypocrites and we are inching ever closer to handing the terrorists the very victory they seek.