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Guantánamo Closure: Evolution or Revolution?

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Nancy Talanian

This blog originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

The Obama administration's failure to meet its self-imposed January 22 deadline for closing Guantánamo was a disappointment, but we know the facility will close eventually. However, now that the Guantánamo Review Task Force has laid out the fate of the remaining inmates, the closure will not be the change we've waited eight years to see--if it is really change at all--unless large numbers speak up.

The task force has recommend that 47 of the men be held in indefinite detention because they are "ineligible for prosecution" but "too dangerous" to release. Charging and trying the men after eight years would undoubtedly be difficult, but our Constitution does not set forth any shortcuts for when the government has made mistakes and needs an easy way out. Our federal court judges are ready for the task, and they recognize the necessity of restoring the rule of law after an eight year hiatus. Losing one's freedom is difficult, and that is why our Constitution puts the onus on the government to prove a suspect's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before taking freedom away.

But before passing judgment on the president for his slow pace of change, let's remember that the majority of Americans oppose closing Guantánamo Bay prison, rarely think of the men at Bagram prison, and support "waterboarding" and other tortures for interrogating Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. A significant number in Congress also oppose Guantánamo's closure and are creating a firestorm over Attorney General Holder's decision to try Abdulmutallab in civilian court. (Where was that firestorm when Attorney General John Ashcroft allowed Richard Reid, the "shoe-bomber," to be tried in federal court in Boston?)

These and other challenges may have put the Obama administration on a path of evolution, to make the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, quietly go away. There are some promising signs of its commitment to do so, such as recent meetings with government officials from Yemen and other countries toward resolving obstacles to repatriating cleared Yemeni detainees, and a U.S. government commitment to fund the men's rehabilitation. See news story in The Guardian.

But there are disturbing signs as well, in addition to the plan to hold 47 men indefinitely, such as the decision not to investigate the June 9, 2006, deaths of three prisoners that were initially ruled suicides, "asymmetrical warfare." New evidence offered by soldiers on duty that night support the view that the deaths resulted from torture. See Scott Horton's January 18, 2010, article in Harper's Magazine.

Without a peaceful revolution that engages Americans in a national debate about our government's injustices at Guantánamo, Bagram, and an unknown number of "black sites" and that resets our national compass toward the rule of law, then we will continue to own those injustices and to see their re-emergence in the future. Members of Congress will continue to criticize the President and other politicians who favor the rule of law as being weak on national security, especially if another terrorist attack is attempted, as it surely will be.

Presidents do not create revolutions; people do. But how do we build enough support when eight years of scare-mongering have caused a majority of Americans to favor the status quo? I suggest that true stories about real prisoners--human beings, not faceless, nameless "terrorists"--can provide the needed dose of reality to counteract our neighbors' prejudices and fears that prevent them from supporting justice for the men.

What is YOUR solution?