A much-anticipated report laments that prisoners “live under conditions, rules, and policies designed” for “incorrigibly violent” detainees. The security controls were found to be “extraordinary,” employing “isolation and lack of in-cell as well as out-of-cell programs and activities.” Even allowing that these measures were in fact designed for some of the most savage of killers, the report nonetheless asserted that the strictures imposed were “pointlessly harsh and degrading.” They included “extreme” measures such as “lack of windows, denial of reading material, a maximum of three hours a week out-of-cell time, [and] lack of outdoor recreation.”
In sum, the report concluded, the detention conditions imposed by the United States government “can only be explained as reflecting an unwillingness to acknowledge the inmates’ basic humanity.”
In short, the federal penitentiary at Florence, Colo., is no Guantanamo Bay.
On the contrary, Gitmo — despite being repeatedly condemned as a blight on America’s reputation by the Obama campaign, congressional Democrats, alleged human-rights activists, European solons, and the legion of lawyers who’ve volunteered their services to al-Qaeda — is a model facility. According to a Pentagon investigation to be presented at the White House this week — a study ordered with great fanfare by Barack Obama in the first hours of his presidency — the detention camp, where about 245 alien enemy combatants are held, is in full compliance with the humane-treatment requirements of the Geneva Conventions.
The Human Rights Watch report cited above was a study of conditions in American civilian prisons, including those maintained by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Specifically, it addresses “supermax” prisons, such as the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Colorado. In these prisons, the government houses convicted terrorists alongside some 20,000 of the most violent offenders in U.S. custody — many of whom are Americans, not foreign jihadists.
The HRW report was completed in February 2000, in the last days of pre-9/11 obliviousness. That fact should remind us of the danger we invite by allowing transnational progressives to define our national-security priorities — as the Left has been allowed to do with Gitmo.
It seems like ancient history but, since history is repeating itself, it’s worth revisiting: Before nearly 3,000 Americans were slaughtered on September 11, 2001, the great progressive crusade was against American incarceration practices. Putting criminals in jail and keeping them there for appropriate periods of time was the 1980s course-correction that led to dramatic declines in crime rates, which had skyrocketed after the criminal-rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
The success of these reforms led to predictable caterwauling on the Left about root causes and rehabilitation, and to the claim that imprisonment causes more crime (in much the same way that we’re today told that defending ourselves against terrorists causes terrorism). This campaign against our effective anti-crime policies often took the form of maddening stories in the New York Times, which frequently and hilariously puzzled over the supposed paradox that crime rates had plummeted “and yet” prison populations were still high. The anti-incarceration campaign also was conducted through studies such as the HRW report, which posited that supermax prisons violated U.S. treaty obligations, that prison authorities were failing to “respect the inherent dignity of each inmate,” and that they were subjecting “prisoners to treatment that constitutes torture or that is cruel, inhuman, or degrading” — that they were, in short, operating prisons “in ways that violate basic human rights.”
It sounds familiar because, following 9/11, this litany was repackaged as the case against Gitmo, the Bush torture-chamber of lefty lore where, in reality, prisoners have mostly gained weight, because they’ve never in their lives eaten better (scrupulously halal) meals or gotten better medical care. And when they aren’t exercising or praying on their government-issued prayer rugs, they are free to spend their leisure time studying the government-issued Korans distributed to inmates by ceremonially gloved Muslim prison guards — despite the fact that the prisoners believe the book instructs them to kill Americans.
This narrative repackaging, though, was done with a strange twist. We needn’t be concerned about shutting Gitmo, we are told, because we have perfectly good prisons in the United States for detaining dangerous terrorists — the very facilities the same critics described as human-rights outrages before 9/11.
We don’t seem to recognize this game, no matter how often it is played. Before 9/11, the bane of the ACLU’s existence was FISA (the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). The FISA court, critics said, was just a rubber stamp for “domestic spying,” its judges mindlessly authorizing national-security surveillance and searches. After 9/11, Bush, like all wartime presidents, ordered monitoring of potential enemy communications without seeking court permission. The Left’s response was to denounce this as an outrageous violation of FISA, whose laudable checks and balances, we were now told, provided the careful judicial oversight that was our insurance against domestic spying.
Or take Afghanistan. Remember when it was a quagmire? It was futile. We were going to be stuck there for decades. But then came Iraq, and suddenly Afghanistan was the “good war” in our campaign against jihad — the war all Americans supported. But Afghanistan was the bad war before it was the good war, and our military operations there had been lambasted by the Left because they reflected Bush’s post-9/11 conclusion that the law-enforcement approach to terrorism (the one we are now backsliding into) was not working.
And even the ineffective law-enforcement model was once too robust for some: Before they discovered the glories of the criminal-justice system in the rubble of the World Trade Center, the Left had insisted that our legal approach was a sham, with kangaroo courts where terrorists were serially convicted (at a 100 percent rate) because the Justice Department had incited an atmosphere of intimidation in which prosecutors, using elastic conspiracy laws, could convict innocent men simply because they were Muslims or Arabs, or because they were engaged in political dissent.
The only thing we can be sure of is that the minute the critics get their way they will immediately move the goalposts. If Gitmo is too harsh and prisoners are sent to federal supermax lockups, then those will be too harsh, too. If military-commission trials are considered unfair, the same people will say that terrorists convicted in civilian courts were railroaded by overzealous prosecutors, fearful juries, and suspect evidence.
Gitmo, as the new study documents, is a model prison. It is also a necessary one. Even the Obama administration has come to terms with the fact that we must be able to detain dangerous people who cannot, for various good reasons, be tried in our civilian courts. We need to hold those people, and interrogate those people, somewhere — and Gitmo is the best place we have. We could close Gitmo, and undermine our national security, in an attempt to satisfy the critics. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think they will ever be satisfied.