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While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
— Eugene V. Debs*
Two hundred forty souls reside now inside the American prison at Guantanamo. Most were kidnapped and taken there by U.S. government employees. None has been charged with any crime. None has enjoyed anything resembling due process of law. Some of these 240 men were boys when they arrived – four, five, six or seven years ago. Most of them have been tortured by “trained professionals,” trained and paid by the U.S. government, by us, you and me.
These prisoners sit – abused and untried – in defiance of many rules and values on which American society prides itself. Our Constitution celebrates and protects the rights of individuals. Millions have fought and died in the past two centuries or so to preserve those precious values. But as long as the Guantanamo prisoners are denied the rights and protections enshrined in our Constitution, America is not and cannot be a free society. As Debs knew, we cannot predicate our own freedom on the oppression of others, whoever they may be. That is not true liberty.
The former vice president, Dick Cheney, argues that without the ability to kidnap people at will, to torture them without restraint and to jail them indefinitely, our country will be at greater risk of terrorist attack. He is wrong about that, as even he must know. His daughter has said that Cheney is now speaking out – after hiding out during much of his tenure in office – because he is afraid he may be prosecuted for war crimes. Cheney should be, both afraid and prosecuted. No one knows better than he does, after his many decades in power in Washington, how far outside the laws and values of our country his policies deviated.
As president, George W. Bush allowed these abuses of American values. But it was the bullyboys he set up in power – Cheney and Rumsfeld and their legal hired guns – who pushed far beyond the limits of law and decency. They did so out of fear. Bullies are cowards who hide their fears with bluster and meanness. Cheney and Rumsfeld, full of bluster, talked tough while quaking in their boots. Remember when Cheney threw out a baseball at a major league game wearing a bullet-proof vest? Who was he afraid of? Better to ask, of whom is he not afraid?
Tough-guy, sadistic cowards are familiar characters in our history and our culture. They represent one part – shameful but all too real – of human nature. It is easy in times of stress and uncertainty to give way to their shameful impulses. But acting out of fear – as bullies do – is no way to live or to run a country. Better to heed the words of the brave men, like Debs, who had the courage to go to jail for his beliefs. Or the real warriors who fight for our country, the top generals who have testified that America will be safer with Guantanamo closed and torture stopped once and for all.
In the anger, fear and panic that followed the attacks on the United States in September 2001, we allowed these bullies to command the vacuum of grief and disbelief with their long-mulled plans for U.S. military supremacy in the Middle East. They told whatever lies they thought would procure backing from the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. They ran roughshod over American values, in the name of upholding them. It is time to disavow these violations and clean up the mess they left to us. Of what are we afraid?
We voted for Barack Obama to break with this lawless regime and restore the values our Constitution honors. Mr. President, you must hold firm to your commitment to close Guantanamo. There is no prisoner there so “dangerous for America” that he does not deserve the due process of law that our society holds dear. If we cannot offer these protections, even to our avowed enemies, then there is little to choose between their values and our own. You have already articulated these beliefs. Please do not be swayed by the menacing cowardice of Cheney and his ilk, or the NIMBY legislators of your own party who would rather pander to their poll standings than do the right thing, which is to bring Guantanamo prisoners into our own prison system and try them, or to let them go. We must not be hostage to our own paranoia, our own weakest nature.
We voted for you, Mr. President, because you promised to act out of conscience, not fear. We are trusting you to abjure the brutal, fearful policies of the recent past, and restore the Constitutional values which made our country great. In you reside our hopes for the American promise that brought you to this office, that you may restore our faith in our own destiny, and the faith of our brothers and sisters around the world.
*Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), American labor leader and five-time presidential candidate, was the only person to run for the presidency while in prison.
JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger 2006). He lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia.