We Are Not Gitmo

Amid echoes of 'Je Suis Charlie,' close Guantanamo and house terrorists on U.S. soil.

Je suis Charlie. This post-Charlie Hebdo rallying cry signifies support of free speech and defiance of the evil. You've read it—maybe even typed it or said it. "I am Charlie. I am not afraid."

In the same spirit, let me suggest another phrase: "We are not Gitmo."

Among the objections to President Obama's push to shutter the post-911 terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay is the Republican argument that no other facility can safely hold terrorists.

"Even as Islamic jihadists are beheading Americans, the White House is so eager to bring these terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. that it is examining ways to thwart Congress," House Speaker John Boehner said in October. "Not only is this scheme dangerous, it is yet another example of what will be this administration's legacy of lawlessness."

How is it dangerous? Does the speaker actually believe that U.S. federal prisons can't hold a few dozen terrorists? How about a military prison? Are these murderous thugs or magicians?

In a column for The Washington Post, Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier recalled speaking to a military reservist who serves as a local corrections officer when not deployed to Guantanamo Bay. "He said that the detainees at Guantanamo are much more docile than the population he normally deals with," Speier wrote. "We've entrusted custody of prisoners to 21 nations since 2001. Our supermax prisons are the most secure in the world. They're more than equipped to securely house anyone."

Housing terrorists in U.S. prisons is not only safer than overseas. It's cheaper than Gitmo. According to Speier, holding a single prisoner at Guantanamo costs $3.3 million per year, more than 40 times the cost of holding a prisoner in the most secure U.S. prisons.

Nearly all Gitmo prisoners are being held without charges, and about half of them are considered low-level threats. Congress voted in December 2010 to forbid the transfer of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the U.S. mainland, blocking an administration plan to try several detainees in U.S. federal courts. Lawmakers reacted to a post-911 form of NIMBY. Suspected terrorists? Not in my backyard.

By going to such lengths to detain suspected terrorists, the United States has done more than undermine its values, waste billions of dollars, and provide terrorist leaders a recruiting tool. Our policies also signal weakness: The mighty United States doesn't think it can keep a few dozen terrorists safely behind bars in its own prisons. Are we a paper tiger? Are the terrorists bar-bending supermen? Or are Americans afraid of retribution against targets inside the United States?

Are we afraid?

There is a legitimate concern among Republicans and Democrats that moving terrorist suspects to U.S. soil would put them into the American judicial system, where due process might cause some to go free. We need to face this issue, not use it as an excuse. Either take our chances with the the judicial system (as we do with some very dangerous American citizens) and/or create legal protocol unique to suspected terrorists in U.S. prisons.

But stop the status quo, which is paralysis by fear.

The White House has a responsibility here, too. Since the 2010 legislative defeat, Obama has failed to produce a plan for detaining terrorists who are too dangerous to be released. He has not made the case for holding them on U.S. soil—under a post-911 regime of rules that both recognize modern threats and adhere to U.S. values.

Sen. John McCain, a GOP senator and a former prisoner of war, said Obama can overcome his party's opposition.

"If I went to the members of the committee today and said, 'Look, they are going to be moved to a maximum-security prison in some location in the United States of America and we have a plan for that transfer, I think most of them would be perfectly happy about that," McCain said.

The Arizona Republican may be overstating the open-mindedness of his GOP colleagues. Obama may not be capable of forging a compromise. But I can hardly think of a more powerful act of defiance than to stand together and say, "We are not Gitmo."