Protests marked the 10th anniversary this week of the prison set up for terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many fault President Obama for failing to fulfill his campaign promise to shut down this stain on America's reputation in the world. Yet the president remains committed to closing this prison, as his press secretary reiterated again this week. The president has been expressly forbidden from doing so, however, by Congress, a fact that those protesters who blame Obama conveniently forget.
The question that should be asked is what is so politically important to most members of Congress--from both parties--about keeping the prison open. Guantanamo was set up deliberately by the Bush administration for the purpose of keeping these inmates beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. federal courts, but the Supreme Court eventually ruled that even on Guantanamo these foreign nationals retain the right of habeas corpus. Therefore legally speaking, there seems to be no need for these prisoners to remain on Cuban soil. The prison used to hold hundreds of terror suspects, but most have been released, and it only holds 171 inmates today. Even granting that some of these detainees are still dangerous people who may wish to do our country harm, it is hard to see why they could not be safely held in some federal SuperMax facility on US soil, or returned to some other countries for detention. These alleged criminals do not have super powers.
So why is it such a sensitive issue for Congressmen to keep this prison alive, even though it harms our reputation abroad, even though its continued existence is probably one of the most effective recruiting tools for terrorist groups abroad? One reason might be to embarrass the president, but that would not explain the opposition to closure of many Democratic Congressmen. Besides the continued use of Guantanamo only hurts the president politically with a relatively small group of supporters. For political moderates and independents, the voters the president needs to court this year to win the 2012 election, the failure to close Guantanamo is probably a political plus.
I would look for deeper needs that are served by this prison. One is the need for a fearsome enemy. Let's face it, a lot of people miss the Cold War, when we had a truly fearsome enemy with the capacity to wipe out our major cities in minutes. We used that Cold War enemy to justify continued large military expenditures and foreign wars, and to crack down on dissenters at home. Now all we have are ragtag groups of belligerents who hide in caves and engage in small scale suicide attacks. Until September 11, when we learned that these people had the capability of using our own technology against us to cause serious harm, it was hard to build that enemy up to the fearsomeness of the former Soviet Union. Now the supporters of huge military might need to remind people of how dangerous these terror suspects remain. What better way to accomplish that than to keep them in a special prison off our shores, demonstrating that they are too special to be allowed into ordinary prisons in our midst?
Second, the existence of such a prison, as well as Congress's insistence on the government's continued power to engage in indefinite detention (which the president resisted), serves as a reminder that the government retains the power to act with impunity against anyone. I don't hear members of Congress openly advocating the need to use the powers of indefinite detention to keep Americans in line, but I still have to wonder if they are partly motivated by the desire to preserve the power of the state against anyone and everyone. Just having the awesome power to detain anyone indefinitely without charges, even if that power is rarely used, serves the purpose.
I am reminded of a trip to Singapore I took years ago with a bar association group investigating human rights issues. Singapore's government asserted, and I believe still asserts, the right to detain individuals without charges, indefinitely. Every once in a while they will use this power to round up a group of dissidents, and hold them for a while. And there was one prisoner, Chia Thye Poh, who was detained without trial for more than thirty years, from 1966 to 1998. His last years of confinement were spent in a hut in a theme park on Sentosa Island. You had to take a Disney-esque monorail or tram-like contraption to visit him. I would find this hard to believe if I had not met him that way myself. Officials in the government of Singapore might have been thinking that all it takes to keep the country's entire population in line, is to hold one guy in detention forever, without trial, just to remind people that the government can do that to anybody if it wants to.
Guantanamo appears to serve as a similar cruel and absurd theme park, where we hold a tiny number of people, just to show the world that we can. It exists in a corner of a hostile nation, a piece of land that it seems hard to believe remains American soil. There our government asserts the right to detain so-called enemy combatants beyond the reach of normal processes. Guantanamo reminds us of our government's power, but also of our own fears and insecurities. The sooner we can conquer those fears, the better.