Politics & Policy

Gitmo by Any Other Name…

…is still necessary.

There’s a lot I don’t understand about the current hysteria over our prison facility at Guantanamo Bay. At the top of the list is why no one has mentioned Louis Pepe or Mamdouh Mahmud Salim.

Salim, a reputed top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, was being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a high security federal jail in lower Manhattan. Pepe was a guard there. On November 1, 2000, Salim plunged a sharpened comb into Pepe’s left eye and three inches into his brain. Salim and a compatriot also beat Pepe savagely, in their effort to get the guard’s keys and orchestrate an escape for himself and two fellow terrorists awaiting trial. Believing Pepe was dead, the attackers used his own blood to paint a Christian cross on his torso. Pepe was an experienced correctional officer, a member of the elite MCC Enforcers Disturbance Control, and he weighed in at 300 pounds. He survived the attack with brain damage, crippling disabilities, and an unending stream of surgeries.

The reason Pepe and Salim are relevant should be obvious. There are good guys and bad guys in this story, and as much as it pains some to hear it, we are the good guys. We are not talking about confused teenagers caught up in events larger than themselves. We aren’t talking about mistaken identities. We’re talking about the cream of our enemy’s crop in the war on terror.

Critics of the Bush administration are fond of the argument that the war in Iraq is a distraction from the real war on terror. John Kerry, Howard Dean, and countless others have argued that Iraq diluted our efforts in Afghanistan, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and the worldwide consensus on the need to destroy al Qaeda. That’s an argument worth having–and we have had it many times over. But if it were all true and we had never invaded Iraq, we would still have Guantanamo and the problem of what to do with hardened, dedicated terrorists like Salim.

Of course, we could close Guantanamo, but if you actually support the war on terror you must recognize that we would still need someplace like it. A rose by any other name and all that. We can’t summarily execute every al Qaeda member we capture. Not just because that would raise legitimate moral and legal problems, but because we can’t win unless we interrogate these guys.

Senator Joe Biden said that while we should close Gitmo and release the occupants, we should also “keep those we have reason to keep.” Huh? This is the logical equivalent of Solomon saying, “Hey, let’s cut the baby in half after all.” Imagine if, instead of Gitmo, the issue was the death penalty. “The death penalty should be abolished, but let’s execute the folks there’s a reason to execute.”

If we kept the ones “we have reason to keep”–which would probably mean all 500 or so current detainees–but closed Gitmo, we could bring them to the United States. But this would be a legal quagmire, as it isn’t clear what their rights would be on U.S. soil. And it would be a disaster to treat them like common criminals with all of the usual constitutional rights. Nobody read these murderers their rights when they were seized in Afghanistan, and it’s not like the cast of “CSI: Kabul” or “Kandahar PD Blue” collected all the necessary forensic evidence to build a case against them. Does that mean we should just let them go? We certainly can’t set them free on American soil. And if we send them back to Afghanistan or Pakistan, it would be like giving them a do-over.

Any new Gitmo would quickly gain the same reputation as the old one because a) al-Qaida is under strict orders to allege all manner of abuses for propaganda purposes, especially now that such tactics have proved so useful, and b) because the “international community” and other lovers of runny cheese desperately want such allegations to be true, regardless of the evidence. That the head of Amnesty International could call Gitmo, where we spend more money on the care and feeding of detainees than we do on our own troops, the “Gulag of our time” is all the evidence we need for that. Caving into such bullying would send the unmistakable message that American can be rolled.

Now, none of this is to say that the U.S. military should have carte blanche to torture or harass detainees. There must be rules, and it is perfectly fair to debate what those rules should be. But unlike the lawless calamity of Abu Ghraib, the evidence is sparse that Guantanamo is anything like the house of horrors depicted by its detractors. In other words, if there are abuses, remedy them. If allegations are propagandistic lies, rebut them as best you can.

But caving into a defamation campaign in order to please those who cannot be pleased and aiding those who must not be aided is no way to support the war on terror or prevent more victims like Louis Pepe.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


The Latest