Fearing the supermen of Guantanamo

By Bernd Debusmann
May 28, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate–Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own–

Americans need to be afraid, very afraid. If President Barack Obama has his way, the country will soon be at serious risk of terrorist attacks coordinated by Muslim men held in maximum security prisons from where no-one has ever escaped.

These inmates possess superhuman strength and cunning. Even in solitary confinement, they might recruit fellow inmates to the cause of al Qaeda and incite riots. They might succeed where the worst of the worst American criminals failed – break out and disappear, seamlessly blending into the community. Next thing you know — a mushroom cloud.

Such scenarios come to mind when one follows the debate over Obama’s plan to close the infamous detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. naval base on the eastern tip of Cuba, and move some of the inmates to prisons in the United States.

This has prompted expressions of dismay both from the political right and from Obama’s fellow Democrats in Congress, and the language used in the debate has taken on a surreal quality. Phrases like “releasing dangerous terrorists into our neighborhoods” and “relocating terrorists to American communities” convey the impression that Guantanamo detainees will wander the streets, shopping for sandals and guns.

“To … bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be the cause for great danger and regret in the years to come,” according to former Vice President Dick Cheney. “We have to make sure that streets and neighborhoods don’t think that they’re going to be the repository of Guantanamo prisoners,” warned Barbara Mikulski, a Democratic Senator.

A group of Republican congressmen drafted a “Keep terrorists out of America Act” early in May. America, for the purposes of the act, means American prisons.

It is ironic that politicians in the U.S., which holds more people behind bars than any other country, profess to have so little faith in a system that costs billions to run and includes high-security “supermax” institutions where dangerous inmates spend all but four hours a week in their cell.

If these fears are more than just political theater, are they justified or are they the security equivalent of other mass psychoses, say the irrational belief that house prices would go up forever? “In terms of escaping, U.S. prisons are extremely secure,” says Alan Elsner, a Reuters correspondent and author of Gates of Injustice, a book on the American prison system. “The fears being voiced now are driven entirely by emotion.”


And lack of rational reflection. Not to mention a generous dose of NIMBY (not in my back yard) politics and a bad case of mishandling a delicate issue on the part of Obama, who left it too late to explain where the 240 detainees held in Guantanamo would go once the prison there is closed as planned, by next January.

His fellow Democrats in the Senate joined Republicans in a 90-6 vote to block $80 million in funds to pay for the closure.

Barely noticed in the hubbub: the federal high security prisons in Colorado and Indiana where Guantanamo inmates would probably move already hold convicted terrorists linked to al Qaeda, including Zacarias Moussaoui, found guilty of helping to plot the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the twin towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon, and Ramzi Yousef, who led the first attack on the World Trade Center.

How many of the detainees still held in Guantanamo qualify for the “worst of the worst” label is anyone’s guess. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the military rounded up 779 suspected “enemy combatants” and shipped them to Guantanamo. More than 500 were released without being charged.

There have been only three prosecutions under a much-criticized military tribunal system authorized by President George W. Bush to try foreign terrorist suspects outside regular civilian or military courts. One defendant pleaded guilty, one was convicted in a contested trial and one after putting up no defense.

Where and when the rest of the detainees will be tried is not clear. What is clear is that Obama will try hard to fulfil his pledge, made on his first day in office, to close Guantanamo, whose existence, he says, “created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”

Stalwarts of the Republican party, an organization in deep disarray and looking for an issue that could draw from a bi-partisan well of fear and xenophobia, did not quite see it that way.

“In my view, what is driving this issue is a quest for popularity in Europe, more than continuing policies that have demonstrably made America safe since 9/11,” said Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republican minority in Congress. Cheney echoed that thought in a speech harshly critical of Obama: “The administration has found that it’s easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo.

“But it’s tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America’s national security.”

Ah, yes, it’s all for those Europeans Obama wants to court. Echoes of the days when Bush and Cheney were riding high and French fries turned into Freedom fries.


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“Republican-bashing (which is contagious, kinda like fear – all the cool kids are doing it).”

We wouldn’t be doing it if they ran the country right in the first place now would we? I do place the blame squarely upon their shoulders. America has only had 2? TWO? democrats as presidents since Nixon was forced out of office? (What a great American that Nixon, SPYING on his fellow Americans(all for power), what exactly did he do in China? Now American Business is in bed with Communists? I thought Communist China was the enemy, the bad guy, someone you’re not supposed to be in bed with.)


Your last post is a lot of words, but it basically defends the right of this government to indefinitely hold a human being without accusing him of anything!
What is next? Americans being put into political prisons for disagreeing with the government? ANY Government that holds people in prison indefinitely with no proof of wrongdoing is Totalitarian, Authoritarian, a Dictatorship if you will.
Obama wants to rid America of this stigma, get Americas image to a level of pride.
But Republicans keep blocking this action. Why? Why do they wish to keep the image of the country in the gutter?
What do they gain from such actions?

The Constitution stands for Human Rights, Liberties, and Freedoms. Obama is trying to restore that, what are Republicans trying to do?

We either stand for the Constitution, the ideals of Liberty and Freedom.

Or we are no different that Communist China whose record on Human Rights is clear for the world to see.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive


Can you read?

I said the-rule-of-law-demands-the-process-of-t rial.

Like I said, please read the post before responding.

Posted by adam | Report as abusive

It all hinges on whether you truely believe in adherence to and observance of the principles of the constitution. The moment you promote an end as justifying putting it aside in order to utilise a means you declare not.

This dilema is not new and was considered by those that framed the constitution.

“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

“Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged against provisions against danger, real or pretended from abroad.”

James Madison

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Posted by John | Report as abusive

And are we not spitting on our Constitution by denying human beings that process.

Our hatred at a (Innocent until proven guilty) person, where did that come from? Honest Politicians (who have nothing to gain by enforcing an image of hate) telling us they are terrorists, but not showing PROOF!

HOW DARE we have pride in ourselves for allowing such a thing. PROOF i need PROOF, if it is not provided, it is not the fault of the INNOCENT MAN who for years have had no justice, but it is the FAULT of those who lied, falsely imprisoned humans being simply because it was convienent for them, these Politicians.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

This unhappy episode will stain the reputation of the USA for years to come.

Posted by mrjohn | Report as abusive

Ok, **sigh**

One more time…

1) The public dialog has fears underneath it that it won’t acknowledge.
2) The fear underneath the public dialog is that (some) Guantanamo detainees may be exonerated.
3) This is not good, because we shouldn’t fear the outcome of due process. It is our way of life.
4) Having this fear means that the public suspects that injustice may have been done and yet it is unwilling to acknowledge that this may be the case.
5) Having this fear is also not a just cause for policy.
6) People who appeal to these kinds of fears to justify unlawful kinds of detention are not following American law or values.
7) Even though the public may fear that some may be exonerated, we still need to follow due process.

8)The real issue is not about detention safety; it is about whether or not the public will recognize due process in spite of its fears.

Posted by adam | Report as abusive

If it comes about, that to satisfy men who have been unjustly imprisoned, it would satisfy my sense of justice for those responsible to go through the same situations the accused had been through. Arabia is known for harsh treatment of criminals. I am not saying death, no. Simply the same kind treatment, I think that would satisfy most men, if they could watch if they wished. No one else. It is not amusement.
Just justice.

Posted by C. D. Walker | Report as abusive

Due process most of these guys were picked up off of the battle field and according to the Geneva Convention can be held until the end of the conflict. Further more in the Geneva Conventions it also states that an organized fighting force can be tried as spies and executed, so I would say the US Government has handled this well the facilities while still a detention center are nice, the detainees are catered to and I might say treated better than our military guarding them and no one has been executed. The Arabs were in Afghanistan before 9/11, why were they there? They attended terrorist training camps, they fought against US forces or supported those that did, and they belong to organizations that wanted to over throw their own government. One group even went through two cities slaughtering everyone at night while they were asleep to include all new born babies.
The real threat of moving these people to the United States is the recruitment of individuals to do their bidding in the US and if they are released in the US well we just helped them reach the area they ultimately wanted to attack.
As far as trials well I do not remember the Germans going before US courts back during the World Wars while we had German POWs in the United States so why would we let the Taliban or Al Qaida go before US courts?
Thanks for your time.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

who says the Geneva Convention is right on everything? It is how old? And not this situation i doubt was conceived at the gathering of Nations that created the Geneva Convention.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

Our own constitution and related federal statues from the founding of the nation state clearly that international treaties take precedence over federal law (federal tariff laws were even rewritten to accommodate every new trade deal).

If one chooses to manipulate the Constitution for clearly illegal actions, you still can’t get around two basic points:

We signed the Geneva Convention.
We championed the Geneva Convention.

Throw in that I once took an oath to support and defend the Constitution…not a president, party, religion or current agenda…against all enemies, foreign…wait for it…AND DOMESTIC.

Everybody from the president down the local cop takes that same oath.

Read what our first several presidents had to say on the responsibility of the government to protect the Constitution, and their fellow citizens, under whose sufferance they were privileged to serve.

If the Constitution and our laws are useless if not followed and applied. Using the Constitution to guarantee one’s rights to speech, assembly and all the rest while using a manipulated version as a blunt weapobn against those who oppose is not good governance, and objectors are not unamerican.

I thought we had gotten past the McCarthy era before I was born…apparently not.

Posted by Brian Foulkrod | Report as abusive

Sorry, Bill-

No one has yet made public in trial precisely how these people were “picked-up” or under what circumstances or according to which accusations. That is exactly what they would have the right to challenge in U.S. or international courts.

If you don’t want them tried on U.S. soil (your German POW argument), then do what was done then, open it up to international trial with public testimony at an internationally neutral venue.

BTW, do you consider waterboarding someone 183 times “decent treatment?” Would you condone that such “decent treatment” should be performed on U.S. POW’s captured in war?

In the little information that has been released so far, it appears that the U.S. has “picked-up” these people in their homes and home countries based upon the word of informants.

We cannot simply declare entire countries as battlefields and “pick-up” whoever we wish, in any circumstance and claim that they are “combatants” disguised as civilians. Trial by law is what establishes these things.

Are we at war with Pakistan or Afghanistan? Are we at war with Saudi Arabia?

When does your “conflict” end? When no person anywhere in the world wishes the U.S. harm?

You claim a war with no rules that is not officially declared and that is conducted upon battlefields that are not defined, against any person of your choosing, civilian or not, for as long as you wish.

That, my friend, is the very definition of “terrorism.” If you wish for America to conduct itself as a terrorist organization then we have already lost the war on terror, for we become its object.

Posted by adam | Report as abusive

A trial and conviction vs detention rate of 700 to 2 is not very efficient so the purpose of abu ghraib and guantanamo was not convictions but window dressing for a very frightened country. Grabbing poor taxi drivers in other countries worked for a while .
Real islamic terrorists ARE scary- they treat women badly, they despise any other view,they bomb without any consideration of the innocent. Their stated aims and actions are incompatible with tolerance for any alternatve society.
How does a reasonable country interact with such people?
America. by contrast, dominates the world in much more subtle ways-through economic bullying,resource theft, and by aggressively imposing the system they call democracy as it is most easily manipulated from the outside. Democratically elected leaders who do not fit the USA mould are killed or marginalized or their countries sanctioned. Insidious organisations funded by the USA military industry like Libertas are introduced to attempt to hamper social-democratic unity as in Europe for example.
Guantanamo negatizes all the best things about america but closing it will not restore the idea of a secular power for good in the world that was envisaged by americas founders.
Until america starts to reduce its guzzling of the worlds resources, recognizes the legitimacy of other ways of living and respects the right to self determination of other nations it will continue to attract the attacks of 9/11 copycats

Posted by phrage frenta | Report as abusive

CD, you fail to address my point that Obama was wrong, and probably knew it, and didn’t think that was important during the campaign.

And your stat on Democratic presidents, I will let speak for itself. I’m glad you like Jimmy Carter-2.0, but I remember what happened the first time. Hence, the only Dems to get elected to the Oval Office since were the man who said “Big Gov’t is over” and the one who said “Change we can believe in”. Neither have happened. (By the way, I deplore the Republican party, too, but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to believe in “The One” either).

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive

Why bring them to the US and give them constitutional rights they never had in their homelands? What will Obama do with the new prisoners he gathers up?

Posted by rfpzzzz | Report as abusive

It’s time to give Cuba back to the Cubans. People taken from Afganistan should be put back there. The US needs to start making friends, not interfering in other countries business – that’s what caused their current problems. Barak was democratically elected therefore the majority of US citizens support him.

Posted by J Breeds | Report as abusive

For all the constitutional scholars, please point out where due process applies to non citizens. Also have you read the Geneva convention, if so where non uniformed insurgents fall under it?
Our esteemed leader talks of a false choice between our security and our principles, sadly it’s not a false choice. You can’t have both, not in reality. All this concern about people who would behead you if given a chance, forgetting the loss of innocents on 9/11. That’s Unamerican, or should I say progressive or whatever liberals call themselves these days. Self loathing guilt ridden pointy headed liberals who never see America doing anything right, unless it’s begging Europeans for forgiveness for defending herself and the rest of the civilized world.
It’s okay, things will swing back once the emboldened terrorists attack on American soil again. Then the average American will remember we are at war and remember who the enemy is. The liberals will have to hide again, find a new name and wait until enough time passes for people to forget again. Then they can start the guilt cycle again and allow our enemies to flourish again.
Don’t think because you have others slapping your backs here and agreeing that it won’t happen again. The American people are wishy washy on these things. Don’t forget that Bush was once quite popular as was the war on terror. It was only once we started losing our resolve and forget about the attacks that the liberals popped their guilty bleeding hearts out. Thankfully these people don’t make policy for long, it just sucks innocents have to die when they do.
Deny it if you will, but Americans will choose security over principle every time they are truly threatened.

Posted by Frank Castle | Report as abusive

“So your against the Constitution of the United States, which is the greatest document on human rights, liberties, and freedoms ever written by man.

You are no better than a terrorist, who of course hate our freedoms and liberties.”- Posted by C.D. Walker

Nope, I am all for the Constitution, and that’s one of the reasons why I oppose bringing these unlawful combatants to America.
Here in America we’d have to provide to them all the constitutional (and other) rights and protections even though they don’t deserve it – because the Constitution entitles them to these rights and protections. As long as we keep them away from the jurisdiction of the Constitution, they are not entitled to any of these.
And as for due process – that’s what is due to unlawful combatants:
“…an enemy combatant who without uniform comes secretly through the lines for the purpose of waging war by destruction of life or property, are familiar examples of belligerents who are generally deemed not to be entitled to the status of prisoners of war, but to be offenders against the law of war subject to trial and punishment by military tribunals.” – quoted from Wikipedia.
For these guys who were caught not in uniform but armed, and with a clear intent to harm, there’s only one due process: military tribunal to establish the fact they are unlawful combatants, and then an immediate appointment with firing squad or hangman. A trip to Guantanamo was leniency in and of itself. However it’s not too late to conduct trials in military tribunals and give them what’s due.
Releasing these bad guys would be a great mistake. One of former Gitmo prisoners was arrested recently in Jordan where he organized al-Qaeda cell and was scouting Israeli targets with intent to commit acts of terror. Hope Jordanians, unlike us Westerners, will be less scrupulous about his liberties and give him his just desert.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Adam, that quote from A Man for All Seasons is perfect. It should be invoked frequently in the ongoing discussions of Bush & Cheney’s stupid, brutal policies.


“And as for due process – that’s what is due to unlawful combatants:
“…an enemy combatant who without uniform comes secretly through the lines for the purpose of waging war by destruction of life or property, are familiar examples of belligerents who are generally deemed not to be entitled to the status of prisoners of war, but to be offenders against the law of war subject to trial and punishment by military tribunals.””

First off, “Unlawful Combatants” are still human beings, and under our Constitution (The greatest document on Human Freedom and Rights) ALL HUMAN BEINGS deserve due process.

“without uniform comes secretly through the lines for the purpose of waging war”

You want to talk about “LINES” on a map, Those “Unlawful Combatants” when did they cross into America, secretly, for the purpose of waging war?

However, Cheney,(One of the 4 horseman of the Apocalypse)
sent how many of his people, secretly, without uniform(Blackwater, other mercenaries) across lines for the purpose of waging war.

Straight out of Rove’s Political book, Blame others for what you are doing,.

The four horseman of the Apocalypse

Rumsfeld- Famine and Pestilence (G. D. Searle)
Cheney- War
Rove- Lies, deceit
Gramm- Money, greed

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

If the prisoners in GTMO had just been interogated and executed on the battle field instead of a cell, would we be having this debate? I think that those people are still alive shows that the American government hasn’t completely abandoned its priciples.

GTMO may be violating the letter of US / international law, but is it violating the spirit of those laws? Sometimes you must act outside the law to shame its inadequacy. I think the poster “Frank Castle” would agree with that.