With the world transfixed by the horrible rampage in France, it is more necessary than ever for the United States to take a stand against terrorism. The most effective way to do that in one stroke is by closing the military prison at Guantánamo.
As President Obama declared on Friday, the United States and its Western allies stand for freedom, hope and liberty. But over the years, Guantánamo has become a symbol of just the opposite. In the Islamic world, a prison where Muslims are jailed for years without charges is deemed inhumane, a contradiction of the values America claims to represent. It has become a recruiting tool for America’s adversaries and, in the words of former President George W. Bush, “a distraction for our allies.”
The first 20, orange-clad captives arrived at the prison 13 years ago today aboard a C-141 Starlifter following an 8,000-mile journey from Afghanistan. Some of these captives are still there. No one can predict how long any current detainee will remain locked up, at what ultimate cost or even when or whether any of them will face a tribunal to decide their fate.
That is precisely the problem. Guantánamo was devised as a stopgap measure, a giant holding cell for terrorism suspects that could serve a useful purpose only until a viable alternative that met international standards of justice could be found.
Unfortunately, no thought was given to the endgame and, before long, political objections, born in part of domestic, post-9/11 hysteria, arose in Congress. Over the years, lawmakers have blocked all efforts to either transfer some prisoners to a “supermax“ facility on the mainland or send others home or to countries that would accept them.
Today, the promise to shut the prison down that President Obama made on his first day in office in 2009 is closer to being achieved than ever before. Over the years, as Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg writes today, 780 foreign men and boys have passed through the system as terror suspects. Now the prison population is 127, down by more than two dozen in one year.
The challenge is to sustain that momentum to finish the job.
As Cliff Sloan, the State Department’s former special envoy for closing the prison, wrote recently, 59 of the prisoners have been approved for transfer, meaning they are not deemed a continuing danger. Most of them are Yemenis, stuck in prison because the security situation at home is perilous.
Some opponents of closing Guantánamo fear that released captives will return to a life of terror. But as Mr. Sloan has pointed out, an improved transfer review process that began in 2009 greatly diminished that possibility. There are exceptions — 6.8 percent of detainees transferred since 2009 have returned to their old ways. But such a small figure does not justify keeping the prison open for all the current detainees.
The best hope for a more responsible attitude by Congress that can lead to a shutdown of the island prison is the change in the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. John McCain, once a prisoner subjected to torture in Vietnam, is the new chairman.
A critic of Guantánamo who would like to see it closed, Sen. McCain now has the power to go along with his longstanding moral authority on such issues. His support could make a big difference. Making the shutdown of Guantánamo a priority would be a righteous cause for the Arizona senator to undertake and would also render a valuable service to the country he has so ably served for decades.