THIS WEEK’S COLUMN: President Obama—Shut Down This Camp!

Next President Should Shut Gitmo on January 20

* Camp has become its own raison d’être
* Hundreds locked in legal limbo
* Jerking around detainees and their families
* Gesture would resonate around the globe

François Mitterand brought civilization to France. One of his first acts as president was to end the death penalty. A guy named Philippe Maurice had his date with the guillotine cancelled.

Amazing but true: the country that gave the world “The Rights of Man” was still lopping off heads in 1981.

Fortunately, things change. Other countries followed France’s lead. Today, just a quarter century later, fewer than a quarter of the world’s nations still carry out capital punishment. Nations that do can’t get into the European Union.

Our next president–probably Barack Obama–has a similar opportunity to create a transformative moment toward a fully civilized United States. I’m not talking about abolishing executions, though that is long overdue. President Obama (or McCain) should close Guantánamo.

Not after appointing a commission to look into it. Not after finding a nation willing to take the detainees. Like Mitterand, he should do it immediately.

After years of denial, Bush Administration officials now admit that hundreds of men and children–as young as 13!–have been tortured and otherwise abused at Gitmo. Inmates were penned up in dog cages, denied exercise, and waterboarded.

One guard vehemently denied urinating on a prisoner’s Koran. His defense? “The guard had left his observation area post and went outside to urinate,” according to a Defense Department report. “He urinated near an air vent and the wind blew his urine through the vent into the [prisoner’s cell].” You see, he wasn’t trying to pee on the Koran. He was trying to pee on the prisoner. His urine stream had inadvertently splashed off the man onto the book.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the inmates–who’d been sold to U.S. troops by Afghan warlords, locked up for years without being accused of anything, denied access to an attorney or their families, denied most of all of hope–freaked out. Some hung themselves. Others went on hunger strike. The military’s response? Suicide, they said, was a diabolically clever act of “asymmetrical warfare.” They strapped the hunger strikers into special chairs, pried open their jaws and jammed feeding tubes down their throats so roughly that they vomited blood.

Most of this kind of fun, the government claims, no longer happens at Club Gitmo. But there’s no way to verify that. Reporters and human rights groups are denied access to the facility and its misérables. Wherever there’s a secret, there’s something to hide. Like the detainees, Guantánamo should be presumed guilty until it is proven innocent.

Life at Guantánamo has entered a weird second phase. Originally dedicated to the forceful extraction of information about impending terrorist attacks, prisoner interrogations now torture inmates in order to obtain information on activities within the camp itself. “The primary focus is the safety of the detainees as well as the detainee guard force, and that’s why we have this intelligence activity,” said the camp’s commander, Navy Rear Admiral David Thomas in August. In other words, the circumstances of the prisoners’ incarceration necessitate further incarceration.

Kafka would have loved it. We keep them in Gitmo, not to keep us safe, but to keep Gitmo itself safe.

As anyone who has spent time behind bars will attest, uncertainty is worse than abuse. Bruises heal; urine dries. Not knowing whether you will ever again be free to walk down a street, sit in a café or hug your children is constant torment. You deaden your emotions in order to survive, wondering whether you’ll ever be able to get them back.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of America’s premier gulag, however, is its use and abuse of military and civilian courts to jerk around inmates and their families. The quasi-judicial system set up to process the detainees is itself a paragon of psychological torture characterized by sadistic glee and aggressive indifference.

There is, of course, the case of the Uyghurs, Muslims who live in China’s far west Xinjiang province, which is part of Central Asia. I was one of the first American commentators to champion their cause. Guantánamo’s Uyghurs are members of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), encouraged by U.S.-financed Radio Free Asia to rise up against Chinese occupation. They obtained weapons training at camps in neighboring Afghanistan. After 9/11, however, China threatened to use its U.N. security council veto to stop the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan unless the Bush Administration threw its pet Uyghurs under the bus.

The U.S. promptly reversed its policy, not only declaring ETIM an officially-designated “terrorist organization,” but agreeing to dispatch its leaders to Guantánamo. Bush even invited officers from China’s Ministry of State Security to interrogate the Uyghurs at Gitmo, softening them up with torture before the Chinese arrived.

The Uyghur prisoners cooperated with interrogators. The Pentagon concluded they weren’t anti-American. “[The Uyghurs] were transferred to Guantánamo more than six years ago and were cleared for release in 2004,” according to Newsweek.

Proven innocent, the U.S. has kept them at Gitmo for the last four years. They can’t go back to China. Why? “The U.S. government credibly feared they would be tortured.” Well, they would know.

Except for Albania, which agreed to take five Uyghurs in 2006, other countries don’t want to validate Guantánamo by accepting those released through its illegal military tribunal system. “The Bush Administration has conceded that none of the Uyghurs is an enemy combatant,” reports Newsweek. A federal judge ruled that 17 Uyghur detainees be freed from Gitmo and brought to the United States. And that should have been that.

But when it comes to Gitmo, that is never that.

Government lawyers persuaded an appeals court to stay the ruling, arguing that the 17 Uyghurs are dangerous. Get this–they’re dangerous to America because, the Justice Department argues in court documents, the Uyghurs “were detained for six years by the country [the U.S.] to which the district court has ordered them brought.” They may not have hated America before–but they might now.

This week the Pentagon decided not to pursue charges against five other Gitmo prisoners. Apparently government prosecutors were afraid that the trials–even those conducted by the military’s kangaroo courts–would publicize how people are treated at America’s Devil’s Island. “They have been cornered into doing this to avoid admitting torture,” said Claire Algar, executive director of the legal group Reprieve.

So the lucky five go free, right? Wrong. “There are no plans to free any of the men, and the military said it could reinstate charges later,” writes the Associated Press.

Bush, it came out recently, “never considered proposals” to close Gitmo. Both Obama and McCain say they want to shut it down, but neither has said when. Their reticence stems from the mentality expressed by a Bush Administration official: “The new president will gnash his teeth and beat his head against the wall when he realizes how complicated it is to close Guantánamo.”

There is nothing complicated about it. Gitmo is useless. It’s evil. It–and the secret detentions at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere–have destroyed America’s reputation far too long.

COPYRIGHT 2008 TED RALL

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15 Responses to “THIS WEEK’S COLUMN: President Obama—Shut Down This Camp!”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Two things.

    1. Have you been in prison before? Your statement about being a prisoner made it sound like you have been.

    2. I believe the “Bush administration official” was referring to the complex agreements and security obligations that are present in Gitmo, not the fact that people are there. I mean, what the hell are you to do with someone who no one will take in? Pay another country? Of course, if the US had such a desire, we could probably bribe some place like Hungary to take them. I doubt Albania took them because they love the gobi that much.

    All in all a good article. You write much better when you’re not sounding like an old man blathering about newspapers.

  2. Ted Rall Says:

    1. My prison experiences consist of one overnight stay in the U.S., plus an assortment of fairly brief detentions in various Third World shitholes–in other words, basically nada. But several of my friends have spent years in prison, and I’ve spoken to many former inmates at length about their experiences.

    2. What we do with the people who are there is (a) apologize to them, (b) pay them a lot of money as compensation, and (c) allow them to stay in the United States if no other country will take them. We brought them to the U.S.–yes, Gitmo is U.S. soil–so they’re our problem now. Before I released them, however, I’d let them spend a couple of quality days with their (disarmed) guards and choice Bush Administration officials.

    Thanks for the kudos. But newspapers *are* important. They’re the only media that actually reports news. Wouldn’t you miss news?

  3. Aggie Dude Says:

    awe but Ted, haven’t you heard the phrase “no news is good news”? 🙂

    I think we’re being a bit ahead of ourselves to believe Obama will win this election. The only thing that gives me hope is that the right wing establishment does seem unwilling to go to the mat for McCain, and they know that Sarah Palin has no chance at a national political future if McCain actually wins. The only capacity she has to be a force in 2012 is to disappear for four years and hope everyone forgets how unqualified she is.

    Palin is the only one that draws right wing support. When the market crashed, a lot of right wing investors pulled out. It seems they’re only willing to play political games when they’re using other peoples’ money.

    And yes….making money on the stock market is gaming a corrupt system to steal money from the public good or from other individuals.

    If the right wing wanted to win this election, I have no doubt they would easily do so, as they always will win. It’s not that the lesser of the two parties doesn’t field good candidates, it’s that the right has a monopoly on the national narrative, and they brainwash the educated into believing their disconnect from ‘real america’ is the problem, and they brainwash the uneducated into voting for a fairy tale over their own economic interests.

  4. Grouchy Says:

    As anyone who has spent time behind bars will attest, uncertainty is worse than abuse.

    I remember that the only reason I survived high school was that I knew that it would end in 4 years…

  5. Clownstotheleftjokerstotheright Says:

    I am usually hesitant to voice my agreement here (which happens far more likely than my othr posts would indicate) as I don’t wanna see myself as just another syncophantic yes-person posting here.

    However, when a column is this good and this right I just have to say:

    HERE F**KING HERE TED!

    Close the place. How can there be any other argument?

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I’m curious to know how you reconcile your fierce defence of human rights with your previous assertion that “abortions should be mandatory” for women under 18. Would a 17-year-old being dragged kicking and screaming into an abortion clinic to have her child forceably vacuumed from her womb not rival many of the Gitmo abuses?

  7. Kelly Clark Says:

    Were Obama to close down Gitmo on 1/20, it would show exactly the decisive fearlessness that we (and the rest of the world) need and want to see Obama embrace in refuting this last eight years of insanity.

  8. Dave Says:

    While hoping against hope that Obama indeed wins this contest. I hold no optimism that he will make significant changes with regards to our foreign policy. It seems that the Republican mantra of “Soft on defense, terrorism, etc” that they chant every election seems to weaken the resolve of the Democrats. In some respects, I think this is really the tactic of McCain/Palin for the past few weeks- casting aspersions on Obama’s patriotism, “socialistic” tendencies et al, so that he will think twice before really instituting any real reform. I hope Obama has the strength of character to resist the fear of looking weak, and actually do something during his stay in office. I’m not holding my breath.

  9. G. M. Palmer Says:

    Yeah, Ted. Spot on.

    I think you work best when you work against the evils done in our name, not the evils done in the name of a party.

    Good show.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Snurk,snurk! Did anyone notice Angel said funner in his post from Berlin? Ted, I could’nt finish this one it irked me so. They call themselves Christians and claim the high ground. When all the time what do you suppose J.C. himself would say about torture. Pissed off.

  11. Jana C.H. Says:

    J.C. knew all about torture, up close and personal. It’s called Good Friday.

    Jana C.H.
    Seattle
    Old Italian Political Saying: The conductor changes, the music remains the same.

  12. Wayne Says:

    I was the first poster. I really should get an account of some kind.

    Anyway. Thanks for being kind and thoughtful to my grumpy comments. I apologize they were grumpy.

    in response to Ted’ points…

    1. I’ve been handcuffed, but never in prison. I do appreciate the honestly with your answer. Most folks would consider that enough for a yes.

    2. In reference to the official in the article, I had referenced the fact that it was US soil and there could be some severe complications. However, we could just move the guys to another location to start a clean slate. As far as compensation, they do deserve it. But we know that isn’t going to happen unless they sue.

    It seems like I read most of my news from wire services, and most of my commentary and analysis in a newspaper. Of course, if there were no newspapers, there would be no wire services. I think as it is now, with just enough business for papers to stay and print, with them desperate enough to give it for free is good. Good for me, anyway. I imagine if the University I work at ever became nationalized and I lost my job/took a pay cut I’d be the first with the torch.

    As will all things, it is easy to be level-headed and impartial when my foot is not in the fire.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    making money on the stock market is gaming a corrupt system to steal money from the public good or from other individuals.
    Really, how?

  14. Daimok Says:

    Of course it will be simple to close Guantanamo. Let them all go with a profound apology and a place to stay in the US if they can stomach the thought and need time to find a better place to live.
    The problem is what to to with the lost souls who tortured them. The folks who ordered it, you lock up for life, but we’ve got a lot of folks amng us who are going to need years of therapy.

  15. Harry Says:

    Similarity to 2000:

    In 2000, Gore won the popular vote, but lost the Presidency to Bush.

    In 2008, John McCain also won the popular vote, but lost the Presidency to Obama.

    Barack Obama won the Presidency by winning the (Bush/Palin) unpopular vote.

    McCain’s Pledge: Relief from Taxes
    Obama’s Pledge: Relief from Texas

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