Ignoring Guantanamo Won’t Make It Go Away

Fixing the mistakes of Gitmo will require Americans to step up and shoulder the burdens of war.

Detainees pray in their cells at the U.S. naval base's Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Andres Leighton / AP)

After 9/11, President George W. Bush made his now-infamous request that Americans serve their country by hugging their children, praying, and participating in the economy (read: keep shopping). And indeed, since then, Americans have not been asked to do much more than this, even through 14 years of the Long War. They still aren’t. This “go to Disneyland” form of nonparticipation has infected all manner of U.S. policy and today informs the current apathy toward transferring prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. mainland. In a bid to resist any sense of shared sacrifice or collective participation, politicians are doing their best to keep the military prison hidden away—out of sight, out of mind, and barely accessible to media.

Guantanamo Bay’s long and often violent legacy as a colonial outpost reached arguably its darkest apogee in 2002 when it became a military prison used to lodge and interrogate prisoners away from American shores and so, ostensibly, outside of regular legal jurisdiction. That assumption, along with so many others about the detention center, proved to be wildly mistaken. The Supreme Court, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, took the prisoners out of legal limbo and confirmed their basic protections under Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. But Gitmo has still been a failure on every level: From reports of abuse and torture, to the forced-feeding scandal, suicides, and even a tragic case of mistaken identity, the detention center at Guantanamo has remained an ethical and legal disgrace.

It’s a liability, too. When Barack Obama talked about shutting Guantanamo down during his 2007 presidential campaign, his argument was predicated on the hypocrisy of the United States claiming to be fighting a war in defense of Western values while also suspending habeas corpus. Obama’s emphasis has shifted over the years; now he calls Guantanamo an “enormous recruitment tool” for terrorists. Morris Davis, a retired colonel and former Gitmo prosecutor turned critic, concurs, telling The American Conservative: “If you need proof of whether Guantanamo helps ISIS promote its brand among those who might be susceptible to its influence, just look at the murder videos they’ve recorded and released. The murder victims are dressed in orange jump suits for a reason: To make them look like the Guantanamo detainees shown in the iconic Camp X-Ray pictures.”

The prison at Guantanamo is also expensive—enormously so. In 2013, the annual prison costs ran over $400 million. That’s $2.7 million spent per inmate per year. It’s not a very cost-effective method of meting out justice when compared with the $26,000 spent per year on inmates in federal prison. That’s a point that seems particularly salient if, as at least one former Bush official has claimed, most of the prisoners at Guantanamo are innocent—guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even just wearing the wrong watch. Clearly, $2.7 million is too much to spend to house an innocent man or a man who remains untried in perpetuity.

Closing Guantanamo should be an issue that finds easy bipartisan agreement. There’s something about the existence of the prison to offend everyone. For the left, there are the human-rights concerns. For the right, wasteful, expensive big-government overreach. And surely everyone would agree that a program that strengthens the enemy is bad for national defense. Yet, when the Senate passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act that would end funding for any attempts to transport Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. soil, the vote reflected a bipartisan consensus to keep the prison open, passing 91 to three. The House rallied around the bill in a similarly cohesive fashion, passing it 370 to 58.

The simple explanation for members of Congress rallying to keep the prison open is public approval. Support for closing the prison has been steadily falling since its 2009 high of 51 percent, dropping to 39 percent in 2010 and 27 percent last year. To judge from the public statements of people defending Guantanamo, the explanation is plain: fear. In 2009, the Republican Senator John Thune argued, “The American people don’t want these detainees held at military bases, or federal prisons, or in their backyard, either.” More recently, when it was announced earlier in the year that potential transfer sites for Guantanamo prisoners included locations in Colorado, South Carolina, and Kansas, Cory Gardner, a Republican senator from Colorado, was cc'd on and disseminated a letter, along with 40 sheriffs, claiming that it is “dangerously naïve not to recognize that a civilian prison with an untold number of enemy combatant inmates in our state, would provide a very tempting target for anyone wishing to either free these detainees or simply wishing to make a political statement.” Echoing the sentiment, attorneys general from each of the three states sent a letter to the president last month claiming that transferring prisoners to U.S. soil would create an “imminent danger” and make “targets” out of the communities hosting the facilities.

Even if Guantanamo weren’t a self-defeating, expensive, legal black hole, even if it were of prime importance and necessary for the security of the United States and the safety of its citizens, there are still U.S. laws and American values to consider. If laws and values are to have meaning, then American leaders must uphold them and do the hard work of convincing the American people to do so also, by persuading them that housing and questioning these prisoners on U.S. soil is worth the risk. The public’s fear, however irrational, should be transformed into a courage commensurate with the importance of the task. As I was told during my time in the Army, people don’t require leadership to sit around and eat cake; they need leadership to motivate them to do big, dangerous, and important things.

In 2008, Andrew Bacevich, the historian and former Army officer, wrote that Bush’s riskiest foreign policy move wasn’t the invasion of Iraq but the 2001 decision not to mobilize his citizens: “From the very outset, the president described the ‘war on terror’ as a vast undertaking of paramount importance. But he simultaneously urged Americans to carry on as if there were no war.” What Americans need from their leaders isn’t an echo of their own fears but a sober assessment of what’s necessary—and the leadership to do what’s right.