by Joshua H. Liberatore
Not famous to date for losing his cool, our POTUS nevertheless knows how to bring the hammer once in a while, when the occasion permits it. And when his motorcade landed him at the National Archives and Records Administration (different office, we were not invited) last Friday morn to talk about Guantanamo and other failures, POTUS seemed pissed. Understandably so! His own Senate – now nearly filibuster-proof for the Donkeys thanks to the probable ascension of Minnesota’s Al Franken – had just rejected (by a vote of 90 to 6) the White House plan to shut down the controversial detention camp in Cuba and distribute its prisoners among domestic Federal “super-max” lockups. Just imagine the nerve. Neither as popular nor as handsome as their Presidential capo and de facto leader of the Party, Democratic Senators wilted under constituent pressure voicing worry over the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to facilities on American soil. First, the philosophical underpinnings of POTUS’s righteous indignation, visibly aglow in the dim Rotunda, America’s founding documents in the background:
I’ve studied the Constitution as a student; I’ve taught it as a teacher; I’ve been bound by it as a lawyer and a legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution as Commander in Chief. And as a citizen, I know that we must never, ever, turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake. I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset in war and peace, in times of ease and in eras of upheaval. (May 22, 2009)
Constitutional idealism aside, apparently “see no evil hear no evil” is a more compelling doctrine for those voters who wrote or called their Senators in nervous palpitations over the prospect of Saudi, Yemeni, or Afghani Islamists sharing cell space with serial rapists and murderers, the dregs of our own homegrown criminal set. The sad truth seems to be that more people feel safe sequestering these captured combatants, many of them scarcely adults, on a dubious naval base abutting a Caribbean nation with which we don’t even have diplomatic relations, where they can be held without cease and interrogated in the peace and quiet that media isolation and geographic distance provide. And though his predecessor apparently didn’t lose any sleep over that arrangement, POTUS is not pleased with the model:
From Europe to the Pacific, we’ve been the nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law. That is who we are. And where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and our institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology. After 9/11, we knew that we had entered a new era; that enemies who did not abide by any law of war would present new challenges to our application of the law; that our Government would need new tools to protect the American people, and that these tools would have to allow us to prevent attacks instead of simply prosecuting those who tried to carry them out. (May 22, 2009)
POTUS is no fool, however. He knows that September 11th created (or roused from slumber) many monsters in our national character, not all of them easily voted out of office, many of them stubborn vestiges in his benighted inheritance. Terrorism, after all, has proven extremely effective in most historical contexts. It begets a cycle of revenge, motivated by at first by shock and then sustained fear, both of which feed back into all sorts of Machiavellian rationales that privilege ends over means, euphemistically termed “new tools.” These in turn serve to justify the hatred borne by the Enemy, useful for generating fresh acts of violence. And archivists of all people, as cataloguers of the nation’s dirty secrets past and present, should recognize the pattern. Still, POTUS was kind enough to blame big-G Government:
Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our Government made a series of hasty decisions. I believe that many of these decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that all too often, our Government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often, our Government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us – Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens – fell silent. (May 22, 2009)
We’ve heard it all before, have we? The victor writes the narrative, establishes the nomenclature. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Or even: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” FDR feared it, we should fear it, and POTUS fears it too.
First, I banned the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques by the United States of America. Now, I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As Commander in Chief, I see the intelligence; I bear the responsibility for keeping this country safe. And I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts; they undermined them. And that is why I ended them once and for all. (May 22, 2009)
Meanwhile, in Dick Cheney’s parallel speech at the American Enterprise Institute, scheduled as a quasi-official response to POTUS’s address from one of the chief architects of the policies under critique, such “tough interrogations” were roundly defended as “legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do,” of which their executors could be “proud.” The abuses at Abu Ghraib were summarily dismissed in familiar mythical terms as the isolated actions of “a few sadistic prison guards,” creative, overzealous underlings. From documentaries like Taxi to the Dark Side, on the strength of extensive interviews with these underlings, however, a very different picture emerges, one in which techniques inaugurated at Guantanamo made a sinister journey to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, onto Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and back to Guantanamo, in an ugly cycle of revision and augmentation that self-propagated until those damning pictures came out in 2004 and Congress got embarrassed.
There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world. Instead of building a durable framework for the struggle against Al Qaida that drew upon our deeply held values and traditions, our Government was defending positions that undermined the rule of law. In fact, part of the rationale for establishing Guantanamo in the first place was the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law, a proposition that the Supreme Court soundly rejected. Meanwhile, instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped Al Qaida recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained. (May 22, 2009)
Cheney disparaged these “liberal” sentiments as “recklessness cloaked in righteousness” and reminded us that it was the tough stuff that helped prevent a major terrorist attack on American soil in the 7 ½ years following September 11th. Am I the only one weary, unimpressed, by this routine boast? After all, there weren’t any major terrorist attacks on our soil between the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and September 11th either, unless of course we count the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and we must, even though it was planned by a white Christian man from New York. Instead of terrorist attacks, we got two bloated wars that have killed more than double the number of Americans killed on Black Tuesday and a mounting bill that is breaking the bank.
The Supreme Court that invalidated the system of prosecution at Guantanamo in 2006 was overwhelmingly appointed by Republican Presidents, not wild-eyed liberals. In other words, the problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place. . . . There are no neat or easy answers here. I wish there were. But I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo. As President, I refuse to allow this problem to fester; I refuse to pass it on to somebody else. It is my responsibility to solve the problem. Our security interests will not permit us to delay. Our courts won’t allow it, and neither should our conscience. (May 22, 2009)
As for the acceptability of trying terrorist suspects in U.S. courts and relocating prisoners to domestic facilities, I’m afraid I can’t see the basis for fuss or worry. Judging by our incarceration rates – above 3% of the adult population, higher than that of any country in the world, and much, much higher than the rates of other advanced industrial societies – locking people up is one of our true national talents. And though the vast majority of inmates are serving time for minor drug offenses and petty theft (nonviolent crimes), we’ve got plenty of places for the toughest, greasiest, most dangerous characters – including several pre- and post-9/11 terrorists – whom no sane person would tolerate roaming the neighborhood. Will the distribution of 250 captured fanatics to prisons already holding two million-plus convicted criminals even register as more than a drop in the bucket? Certainly, without arms and without the structure and discipline that their cause provided them in the dusty crags of Afghanistan and Babylon, these chaps won’t pose any greater danger than that supplied by your average child molester or gang banger, and probably a lot less. A Federal prison in Terra Haute, IN was good enough for Tim McVeigh, wasn’t it?
Now, as our efforts to close Guantanamo move forward, I know that the politics in Congress will be difficult. These are issues that are fodder for 30-second commercials. You can almost picture the direct mail pieces that emerge from any vote on this issue, designed to frighten the population. I get it. But if we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes. And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future. (May 22, 2009)
But Cheney’s worries about the country going soft balls on the liberals’ watch are misdirected. On the contrary, POTUS has turned up the heat on the Taliban in Afghanistan (and now Pakistan) in a way that might have old Cheney faithfuls like John Yoo and Paul Wolfowitz (now both safely harbored in academia) blushing with envy. POTUS’s new top commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal is a hard-piping Special Ops veteran who ran Cheney’s own Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) out of the Pentagon and is reputedly no stranger to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” As for Guantanamo’s remaining prisoners, the course is not yet clear. What’s certain is that if POTUS insists on exorcizing the demons of Guantanamo within this first year in office, as promised, he’ll have to do more than shake his fist at a room full of librarians, records analysts, and historians.