Guantánamo at Home

Published on Axis of Logic, by Jeanne Theohari, June 18, 2009.

Two days after being sworn in as the forty-fourth president of the United States, Barack Obama signed three executive orders, banning torture, requiring the CIA to use the same methods as the military in interrogating terror suspects, shutting down the network of secret CIA prisons and shuttering the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. “What the cynics fail to understand,” the president proclaimed in his inaugural address, “is that the ground has shifted beneath them” …

… But Guantánamo is not simply an aberration; its closure will not return America to the rule of law or to its former standing among nations. Guantánamo is a particular way of seeing the Constitution, of constructing the landscape as a murky terrain of lurking enemies where the courts become part of the bulwark against such dangers, where rights have limits and where international standards must be weighed against national security. It is an outgrowth of a “war on terror” with historical precedents that took root under Clinton (in legislation like the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act), spread like kudzu under Bush and infiltrated the fabric of the justice system. It is a pre-emptive strategy where stopping terrorism has come to mean detaining and prosecuting people who may not have committed any actual act of terrorism but whose religious beliefs and political associations ostensibly reveal an intention to do so … 

… In his confirmation hearing, Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder unequivocally declared that “Guantánamo will be closed,” yet simultaneously pledged to “fight terrorism with every available tool.” It is important to close a renegade prison in a remote corner of Cuba. But it is just as important, if much harder, to look at ourselves at home. It is here, in Lower Manhattan, Minneapolis and Miami, in our Justice Department, where we must shift the ground. It is here where US citizens and residents–in our federal court system and under our watch–await trial, often facing secret and specious evidence under inhumane conditions that rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment. The task of ending Guantánamo requires that we examine and rebuild the political and judicial systems within our borders–to reform the Justice Department, the courts and prison policy. We would be wise to heed former Chief Justice Earl Warren’s warning about the dangers lurking in our judicial processes: “It would indeed be ironic,” Warren cautioned in 1967, “if, in the name of national defense, we would sanction the subversion of…those liberties…which [make] the defense of the nation worthwhile.” (full long text).

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