Closing Guantanamo (For Real This Time)

By Lisa Ebersole

This week, Obama Administration officials revealed that the President is considering using his executive power to close Guantanamo. Congress has attempted to preemptively block such action by including a provision in the military spending bill that forbids the transfer of any of Guantanamo’s prisoners back to the United States. However, Obama could circumvent Congress by vetoing the military spending bill or by signing the law into effect, but including a signing statement saying that the prohibition against transferring Guantanamo inmates violates his powers as Commander-in-Chief, signaling that he does not intend to comply with that aspect of the law. This news has summoned an ironic accusation from John Boehner: that the President would be “thumb[ing] his nose at the American people and the Constitution” by bringing the inmates to prisons in the United States.

Last week, D.C. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the release of video footage showing the force-feeding of Guantanamo inmate Wa’el Dhiab. Judge Kessler was ruling on a Motion to Intervene and to Unseal Video Tape Evidence from the case Abu Wa’el (Jihad) Dhiab v. Barack H. Obama, et al., filed by sixteen news organizations. In her opinion, Mr. Dhiab is quoted as expressing his hope that the tapes be released: “I want Americans to see what is going on at the prison today, so they will understand why we are hunger-striking, and why the prison should be closed. If the American people stand for freedom, they should watch these tapes. If they truly believe in human rights, they need to see these tapes.”

It may seem that the tide of public opinion is changing, but it isn’t: most Americans oppose closing Guantanamo. At the very least, though, a circle of people who see the closing of the prison as a viable political move is gathering inside the White House. It is difficult to argue that circumstances have changed significantly since 2008, and there may be no other reason for the renewed attention to the issue other than Obama made a promise and time is running out.

The real question then seems to be, how much time needs to pass for Guantanamo to be more uniformly viewed as a grave misstep that has threatened America’s standing in the world and its commitment to human rights? The legality of the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s was upheld by the Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States. It then took almost 40 years for an investigation into the camps to be commenced, and almost 50 for a formal apology to be issued to the individuals who were detained. It was not until 2011 that the Department of Justice acknowledged that the Korematsu decision was an error.

While there are, of course, significant differences between the programs, they have common threads, one of which may be the enlightening effect of hindsight. Right now the public’s enthusiasm for closing the prison is disappointingly low, but I for one hope that it will not take half a decade or more to reconsider the true cost of keeping Guantanamo open.

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