President Obama spoke earlier today about the need to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. There are many things I could say about the president and his policies, especially on this issue. For now, though, I have only one thing to say: I disagree with him.
Here is an excerpt from the president's speech:
"Finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people.
"I want to be honest: this is the toughest issue we will face. We are going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who have received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, commanded Taliban troops in battle, expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.
"As I said, I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture – like other prisoners of war – must be prevented from attacking us again. However, we must recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded. That is why my Administration has begun to reshape these standards to ensure they are in line with the rule of law. We must have clear, defensible and lawful standards for those who fall in this category. We must have fair procedures so that we don't make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified."
I'm not a lawyer; just a young man who grew up on lawyer shows, like Ally McBeal, The Practice, Law & Order, and Boston Legal. Aside from the characters and all their flaws, the one thing that the writers seem to want to make clear in every episode is that justice is paramount. The characters defend, in properly dramatic fashion, the rights of rapists, drug dealers, murderers, and more than a few corrupt politicians. The ideal seems to be that, no matter how despicable a person may be, the law must be upheld in pursuing, prosecuting, and punishing them.
In the case of the suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, I say there is no reason we should not already be actively investigating and determining the guilt or innocence of every detainee. Whether it's done in civilian courts, military tribunals, or an international war crimes commission, I don't really care. Once the investigations are over, though, and every potential enemy combatant has had his "day in court", comes the moment when the jury says either "guilty" or "not guilty". The guilty are sent back to prison; the not guilty are free to go.
No one, I'm sure, wants a potential suicide bomber walking the streets, or worse, boarding a plane. The president has rightly identified the most difficult decision he must make in this area: what to do with those people we know, but cannot prove, are terrorists. Perhaps we would all like to do what the president seems to propose, and what his predecessor did: indefinitely hold these "unproven" terrorists until we're sure they will never harm anyone ever again. That is not justice, however. I'll say it again: no matter how despicable (or even dangerous) a person may be, the law must be upheld. If you can prove guilt, then incarcerate them; execute them, if you feel it's appropriate. If you cannot, though, then set them free. Set spies and satellites and Special Forces to watching them for the rest of their lives, but set them free.
There are many things the president has said, done, and proposed in the war on terror with which we can all take strong issue. Personally, I have many objections to his policies. For each of those policies, though, he seems to fight on the side of justice for all. Only in this area does he seem prepared to ignore that ideal.
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