Last Saturday, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp released four of its 136 uncharged detainees from custody. Six years late, Barack Obama is inching closer towards keeping his promise: “I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that.” But as for the pledge to restore habeas corpus that accompanied his making an anti-Guantanamo stance central on the campaign trail, he’s not so inclined to “follow through on that.”
Obama told CNN that “there’s gonna be a certain irreducible number that are gonna be really hard cases, because we know they’ve done something wrong and they are still dangerous, but it’s difficult to mount the evidence in a traditional Article III court, so we’re gonna have to wrestle with that.” And yes, this is the same Obama who issued an executive order two days after becoming president aimed “promptly to close detention facilities at Guantanamo” stating clearly that “the individuals currently detained at Guantanamo have the constitutional privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.”
This is what democracy looks like.
It has taken the president until the lame-duck section of his second term to take such a baby step towards closing a facility which, even in purely realpolitik terms, is a liability on par with the Bastille of pre-revolutionary France (whose Ancien Regime could likely have hung on longer by making a show of releasing a couple of inmates now and then). Not that its cost making regular US prisons look like models of fiscal restraint gives pause to its unblinking defense by Nile Gardiner, the Heritage Foundation’s director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
Meanwhile, Voice of America shifts the blame to “obstacles imposed by the U.S. Congress,” a move reminiscent of bygone calls to “let Reagan be Reagan” and implement the laissez-faire he really wanted to all along.
Emma Goldman wrote in “Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure” that “the natural impulse of the primitive man to strike back, to avenge a wrong, is out of date. Instead, the civilized man, stripped of courage and daring, has delegated to an organized machinery the duty of avenging his wrongs, in the foolish belief that the State is justified in doing what he no longer has the manhood or consistency to do. The majesty-of-the-law is a reasoning thing; it would not stoop to primitive instincts. Its mission is of a ‘higher’ nature.”
A century later, the hypertrophied growth of the prison bureaucracy bears this out, as well as her insistence that “The hope of liberty and of opportunity is the only incentive to life, especially the prisoner’s life. Society has sinned so long against him—it ought at least to leave him that. I am not very sanguine that it will, or that any real change in that direction can take place until the conditions that breed both the prisoner and the jailer will be forever abolished.”
Joel Schlosberg is a contributor to the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org). He lives in New York.