Scared Silly

Guantánamo Bay – now that’s an odd place. During the Spanish-American War our fleet used the harbor there to ride out the summer hurricane season of 1898, and the rest is history. Somehow the Cuban-American Treaty gave the Republic of Cuba ultimate sovereignty over Guantánamo Bay while granting us “complete jurisdiction and control” of the area for coaling and naval stations, modified by a treaty in 1934 that included a lease payment for the use of the place. Since the Cuban Revolution the Castro government has cashed only one of the monthly checks, but it seems we still pay. Or maybe we don’t. Since that 1953-59 revolution of course things have been more than a bit ambiguous – our permanent naval base there not on American soil. But we maintain it’s not really on Cuban soil – we lease the land from a hostile government that won’t cash the checks and wants us out, off their soil, even if there is no possible way they can do a damned thing about it. We’re not exactly occupying their soil, but it is a permanent base – no Cubans allowed. We have “complete jurisdiction and control” after all. But it’s not our territory, really. That makes the place neither here nor there – it’s a nowhere place. Kafka would understand.

That made it the perfect place to stash terrorists we snatched from all over the world – some from battlefields, some from places like Bosnia and East Africa, some turned over to us be people who had a grudge, and some we paid a bounty for, no questions asked. We said they were terrorists – the worst of the worst – but it seems only some of them were. Well, better safe than sorry – it was the Cheney One Percent Doctrine – treat a one percent probability as a certainty and all will be well. That seemed to be the idea, and since October 7, 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began, we have chucked 775 of these guys in Guantánamo, but about 420 have been released without charges, and as of January 2009, some 245 were left there.

But we have three convictions – David Hicks, who was found guilty under legislation introduced in 2006 – providing material support to terrorists, which he provided in 2001. Yep, convicted of breaking a law that hadn’t been written when he did what he did. That’s odd, but he’s home in Australia now. And we convicted Salim Hamdan – of being a chauffeur who now and then drove Osama bin Laden around. Well, he did that, and we proved it. It’s something. And there was Ali al-Bahlul – he made a video celebrating the attack on the USS Cole. He shouldn’t have done that. As for the folks still there, we’ll get around to dealing with them, somehow. Obama’s been talking about reviving the military tribunals he once mocked – he has this notion that all evidence derived from coercion (what everyone but us calls torture) should be excluded, and hearsay evidence severely restricted. That will make things fair, and the world will respect us once again. That won’t go well. That’s pretty much all the evidence we have. What we learned about the eight or ten really nasty people there may all be true, but under all the accepted rules of evidence we can’t actually prove it.

Of course this has been a royal screw up from the get-go, and everyone knows it:

European Union members and the Organization of American States, as well as non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, have protested the legal status and physical condition of detainees at Guantánamo. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch has criticized the Bush administration over this designation in its 2003 world report, stating: “Washington has ignored human rights standards in its own treatment of terrorism suspects. It has refused to apply the Geneva Conventions to prisoners of war from Afghanistan, and has misused the designation of ‘illegal combatant’ to apply to criminal suspects on U.S. soil.” On May 25, 2005, Amnesty International released its annual report calling the facility the “gulag of our times.” Lord Steyn called it “a monstrous failure of justice,” because “… The military will act as interrogators, prosecutors and defense counsel, judges, and when death sentences are imposed, as executioners. The trials will be held in private. None of the guarantees of a fair trial need be observed.” Another senior British Judge, Justice Collins, said of the detention centre: “America’s idea of what is torture is not the same as the United Kingdom’s.”

Then, starting in 2003, our own military lawyers started resigning in protest – and on the second day of his presidency, Obama signed an executive order to close the place by the end of the year. The whole business had made us look awful for so many years that something had to be done. We’d become the bad guys, what with indefinite detention without charges, and torture, followed by show trials where the accused were not allowed to know the charges against them or see the evidence – or if not the bad guys, hopelessly paranoid and rather stupid.

But some things are easier said than done:

In a rare, bipartisan defeat for President Barack Obama, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open for the foreseeable future and forbid the transfer of any detainees to facilities in the United States.

Democrats lined up with Republicans in the 90-6 vote that came on the heels of a similar move a week ago in the House, underscoring widespread apprehension among Obama’s congressional allies over voters’ strong feelings about bringing detainees to the U.S. from the prison in Cuba.

So we’ll keep the place open – up and running to enflame those already pissed at us even more, and to further appall our allies, and to make everyone else laugh at us. This was on the eve of the president making a speech on our fight against terrorism. The call from all lawmakers – keep the place open, forever. We cannot have these folks here, in our prisons. Dianne Feinstein of California did admit it – “Guantanamo is used by al-Qaida as a symbol of American abuse of Muslims and is fanning the flames of anti-Americanism around the world.” But we don’t want these folks in prisons here, awaiting disposition.

It got complicated, of course:

Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-in-command among Democrats, pointed out that no one has ever escaped from a federal “supermax” prison and that 347 convicted terrorists are among those held in them. That drew some support from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “The idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees within the United States is not rational,” he said.

Not all Republicans were thinking along the same lines. “No good purpose is served by allowing known terrorists, who trained at terrorist training camps, to come to the U.S. and live among us,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas. “Guantanamo Bay was never meant to be an Ellis Island.”

Lamar Smith seems confused about the concept – these guys wouldn’t be flipping burgers at Wendy’s or anything. But there was this:

A top al-Qaida suspect held at Guantanamo Bay will be sent to New York for trial, an Obama administration official said Wednesday, a major step in President Barack Obama’s plan to close the detention center by early next year. Ahmed Ghailani would be the first Guantanamo detainee brought to the U.S. and the first to face trial in a civilian criminal court.

An official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to disclose the decision, told The Associated Press the administration has decided to bring Ghailani to trial in New York. He was indicted there for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa – attacks that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. It was not immediately clear when the transfer would occur.

Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was categorized as a high-value detainee by U.S. authorities after he was captured in Pakistan in 2004 and transferred to the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba two years later.

One assumes everyone in Manhattan is now in danger. Sure, he’ll be in maximum security detention or in the courtroom – but you never know. These guys have magic powers. Yes, we’ve been scared silly.

The constitutional law and civil rights litigator Glenn Greenwald has a few things to say about this:

The “debate” over all the bad and scary things that will happen if Obama closes Guantanamo and we then incarcerate those detainees in American prisons is so painfully stupid even by the standards of our political discourse that it’s hard to put into words, and it also perfectly illustrates the steps that typically lead to America’s National Security policies:

(1) Right-wing super-tough-guy warriors project some frightened, adolescent, neurotic fantasy onto the world – either because they are really petrified by it or because they want others to be (“Putting Muslim Terrorists in our prisons will make us Unsafe! – Keep them away from me, please!!!”);

(2) Rather than scoff at the inane fear-mongering or point out simple facts to reveal its idiocy, Democratic “leaders” such as Harry Reid echo the right-wing fears in order to prove how Serious and Tough they are – in our political debates, the more frightened one is, the more Serious and Tough one is – and/or because they are genuinely frightened of being called mean names by Sean Hannity (“Harry Reid isn’t as scared of this as I am, which shows that he’s weak”);

(3) “Journalists” who are capable of nothing other than mindlessly reciting what they hear then write articles depicting the Right’s frightened neurosis as a Serious argument, and then overnight, a consensus emerges: Democrats are in big trouble politically unless they show that they, too, are as deeply frightened as the Right is.

That’s about it. Don’t you see the threat? No. What’s wrong with you? It works every time. You would think that after the WMD farce, and the talk about Saddam’s nuclear weapons program, and of his tight links to al Qaeda, it wouldn’t work. But it does.


Until recently, I thought the single most embarrassingly stupid event of the last decade’s national security debates – the kind that will make historians look back with slack-jawed amazement – was the joint dissemination in the run-up to the war by the Bush administration and the American media of playing cards that featured all of the “Most Wanted” Iraqi Villains and their cartoon villain nicknames.

This tops that, although his discussion of “Most Wanted” Iraqi Villains is lively – and deadly. This is just even more stupid:

Despite all that, we never tire of the specter of the Big, Bad, Villainous, Omnipotent Muslim Terrorist. They’re back, and now they’re going to wreak havoc on the Homeland – devastate our communities – even as they’re imprisoned in super-max prison facilities.

How utterly irrational is that fear? For one thing, it’s empirically disproven. Anyone with the most minimal amount of rationality would look at the fact that we have already convicted numerous alleged high-level Al Qaeda Terrorists in our civilian court system (something we’re now being told can’t be done) – including the cast of villains known as the Blind Sheikh a.k.a. Mastermind of the First World Trade Center Attack, the Shoe Bomber, the Dirty Bomber, the American Taliban, the 20th Hijacker, and many more – and are imprisoning them right now in American prisons located in various communities.

We’ve been doing that for two decades. What are all the bad and scary things that have happened as a result? The answer is: “nothing.”

As for Guantánamo just being a much safer place, he notes this:

…while it’s true that “not a single prisoner has escaped from Gitmo since it was created,” it’s also true that no Muslim Terrorists have escaped from American prisons, and our SuperMax prison “has had no escapes or serious attempts to escape.” Actually, the only person to even make an escape attempt from a SuperMax is Green Arrow, who hasn’t succeeded despite the help of Joker and Lex Luthor.

He provides the links if you want to look that up, but no one wants to. That’s just how things have worked out:

Isn’t it rather obvious how degraded a citizenry becomes when there’s this constant effort to keep them in a state of intense fear of everything? Even after eight long years of the Bush era, our leading political figures and media stars – especially the Toughest and Most Serious ones – still quiver with paralyzing fear, completely take leave of their senses, the minute someone utters the word “Terrorist” and especially the phrase “Muslim Terrorist.” The last two elections proved that Americans themselves generally are no longer frightened by this tactic, but for our political and media elites, “Terrorist” is still the supremely scary, all-purpose justifying phrase. 

As for the media, although Greenwald doesn’t mention it, this is all great press. What a story! Yes, it may be nonsense, but what a story!

And of course he offers a list of the Serious Democratic Senators who have played along, and cites the Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin:

Here’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the Obama era: Republicans are still able to come up with scare tactics that turn Senate Democrats into a terrified and incoherent bunch of mewling babies. …

Ah well. Old habits die hard, I guess. And Senate Democrats apparently remain an easily frightened bunch, after eight years of faint-hearted submission.

And so it goes.

And Digby notes a curious exchange on MSNBC’s Hardball:

Chris [Matthews] then noted that Robert Mueller said the terrorists could run the jihad from prison and Chambliss agreed that our prisons could easily become hotbeds of terrorist activities because they are a breeding ground for recidivism. They are super smart, clever people who are experts at getting their message out.

Chris then asked Ben Nelson why we are so “dainty” about this and why don’t we just execute these dangerous criminals since they are evil and will always be evil. Nelson said we should send them back to their countries under the understanding they will never be released or at least will be rehabilitated as the Saudi Arabians do even though it doesn’t really work.

That’s Matthews for you. Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone concerned if some sense sensible, practical and patriotic American just strolled cell to cell and, one at a time, blew their brains out with a pistol? Wouldn’t that be easier? Wouldn’t that be best?

Digby doesn’t think so:

Never once, during the entire incoherent, intellectual compost pile of a discussion did anyone mention the fact that a bunch of these “terrorists” are not guilty of anything. But I guess that’s not important. If some grunt picked them up seven years ago somewhere in the world then they are guilty of being in the wrong place at the right time, ‘n that’s good enough for us.

I just have to laugh at the sight of Republicans defending our good clean All American killers against some SuperVillain Afghan farmer who “killed Americans or tried to kill Americans.” I’m sure the American killers will happily vote Republican with that kind of endorsement (if they are ever let loose and Americans are “exposed” to them).

This isn’t even a debate. It’s a pageant. A sick, stupid pageant.

And she also says this:

Obviously, this argument that we can’t allow suspected terrorists to come into our communities and kill us all in our beds is beyond stupid (unless you actually believes these prisoners have supernatural powers as the racist rightwing pantwetters seemed to believe.) America has no shortage of dangerous killers and psychopaths locked up in its prisons and we seem to be able to handle them just fine. I recently heard one of the Republican strategists argue that we couldn’t allow these prisoners to be housed in America because it would provoke terrorists to try to break them out (kind of a Butch and Sundance thing, I guess.) But, if Americans can’t break their own gang members out of maximum security prisons, it’s hard to imagine that some roving jihadists could do any better.

Prisons are what we do. We have more people locked up that any other nation on earth. It’s one of our biggest industries. We may be bad at everything else, but locking people up we are really, really good at. The idea that we can’t keep a few broken, foreign, torture victims in jail is patently absurd. If you don’t believe that the government is capable of protecting a prison from attack by foreign terrorists, anyone who lives near a nuclear power plant should be completely petrified. Talk about a target.

She argues this is “just one more example of the politics of national security trumping actual national security.”

Logic says that Guantanamo could be closed today and these prisoners could be brought tomorrow to military brigs around the country if not maximum security prisons we have by the dozens. The rest of the world would see Obama fulfilling his clear and unambiguous promise to close it (a promise he shared with his Republican rival, btw) and would gain tremendous credibility around the world for doing so. But the Republicans have the Democrats running scared on national security again and that’s the end of that.

Let’s not pretend there’s really a “debate” going on here. The Democrats are more scared of Republicans than they are of terrorists or anything else and that’s what’s driving this.

Yep, they’ve been scared silly. And those who expected more from them are probably disgusted. We wanted grown-ups.

So we’ll keep the Guantánamo place open forever. And those we elected want us to know that they’re scared silly, which of course makes them very serious people. It’s no wonder people have no interest in politics, or in politicians.

Kevin Drum sums things up nicely:

I read things like this. And I realize all over again just what Obama is up against. His own party won’t support him against even the most transparent and insipid demagoguery coming from the conservative noise machine. The GOP’s brain trust isn’t offering even a hint of a substantive case that the U.S. Army can’t safely keep a few dozen detainees behind bars in a military prison, but Dems are caving anyway. Because they’re scared. And then they wonder why voters continue to think that a party that can be bitch slapped so easily might be viewed as weak on national security.

Your government at work…

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Americans Scared Silly, Closing Guantanamo, Democrats Turn on Obama, Guantanamo, Obama Orders Guantanamo Closed, Paranoia as a Sign of Serious Thinking, Senate Vote against Obama to Keep Guantánamo Open, The Politics of Fear. Bookmark the permalink.

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