The recent death (a suspected suicide) of a prisoner at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has helped reignite the debate over whether the facility should be closed. It’s a complex issue. However, I think Guantanamo should remain open.
As I see it, there are two major considerations that should drive the debate about Guantanamo’s future. The first is whether keeping the facility open is the best way for the U.S. government to protect the American people.
I think it is. It offers several compelling advantages over the alternatives. For one, the detainees are guarded by well-trained MPs, isolated from support and held in a place from which escape would be nearly impossible. Remember, many Guantanamo detainees are resourceful, ideologically committed enemies of the United States who have stated that they want to maim and kill Americans, so it’s important that they’re kept in a facility that’s as secure as possible.
Closing the Guantanamo facility and opening a new detention facility in the U.S. would pose profound security risks. The new facility would become a beacon for extremists and an expensive, highly complex challenge to secure. Just look at what happened when the Obama administration attempted to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York City (an effort which it has since abandoned). And while many politicians love the idea of a domestic detention facility, few want one in their backyard.
Moreover, over the years the government has invested an enormous amount of money in expanding the Guantanamo facility’s support base. Inmates now have access to a well-stocked library, gym and soccer field. These outlets don’t simply provide humane incarceration conditions and encourage rehabilitation; they also directly serve our national security interests. If the detainees were transferred out of Guantanamo, the benefit of these outlets would be lost.
The second consideration that should drive the Guantanamo debate is whether keeping the facility open is the best way to ensure justice for the detainees as well as the victims of terrorism.
At the core here is a critical legal question: Are the Guantanamo detainees suspected illegal combatants subject to military authority, or are they suspected criminals and thus subject to the civilian criminal court system? I support the prior understanding. The Guantanamo detainees were captured while engaged in armed hostilities against the United States. Their objectives in fighting the United States were manifestly political — and their chosen mechanisms of action were undoubtedly military. Indeed, as criminal-approach advocates often neglect to mention, a substantial number of former Guantanamo detainees have returned to the battlefield. Put simply, operating as part of organized groups like al Qaida, these detainees were at war. From my perspective, if the Guantanamo detainees are criminal suspects, laws of war cannot exist in a compatible reality.
Next, let’s consider Guantanamo’s procedural justice. In the past, many Guantanamo detainees haven’t been given speedy trials. However, with President Obama having finally re-authorized the military commission process, more progress toward bringing detainees to trial will be made. That progress will illustrate America’s commitment to the rule of law and undercut negative perceptions about Guantanamo. Contrary to popular opinion, anger toward Guantanamo amongst Islamic populations is not driven by an inherent discomfort with military commissions, but rather by the perception that Guantanamo is a black hole of permanent, un-reviewed detention.
Ultimately, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay provides an imperfect solution to a highly complex problem. While 82% of all Guantanamo detainees have already been released, wherever possible the U.S. government should expedite this process, repatriating those who are no longer believed to pose a substantial threat. At the same time, the accused should face military commissions. In the end, though, considering the many interests at stake and absence of good alternatives, I believe that the Guantanamo detention facility must remain open for the foreseeable future.
Tom Rogan is an American blogger and writer currently living in London, England. He recently completed a law course and holds a BA in War Studies from King’s College London and an MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS, London. His blog can be found at TomRoganThinks.com. Follow him on Twitter.