Politics & Policy

Why Not Shoot Them?

Guards escort a detainee at Guantanamo, September 2010. (John Moore/Getty)
A not-entirely-facetious consideration of the Gitmo conundrum

President Barack Obama has renewed his call for closing down the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and has thereby refreshed his conflict with congressional Republicans over the future of the facility, currently home to 91 sundry villains captured abroad during our ongoing national confrontation with the forces of radical Islam.

Gitmo presents the government with a triple bind: For President Obama, Gitmo is a hated symbol of President George W. Bush’s (purported) bellicosity and disregard for civil liberties; never mind that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate currently resident in the White House has discovered a strange, new, and convenient respect for other such Bush-era innovations as drone assassinations (which Obama expanded to include the extrajudicial execution, i.e., murder, of U.S. citizens) and the PATRIOT Act and NSA spying and the rest. All that can stay, in the president’s view, but Gitmo has to go. The second and third parts of the triple bind are 1) the fact that Congress will not cooperate with relocating Gitmo prisoners to the United States and thus invite meddling in military matters by domestic magistrates, and 2) the fact that, understandably enough, no other country is willing to accept these misfits.

EDITORIAL: Ignore Obama’s Grandstanding and Keep Gitmo Open

But the usual framing of the question — keep them in Gitmo or send them to some federal Supermax — presents a false choice that ignores a seldom discussed option for dealing with these prisoners.

I refer, of course, to the relatively straightforward expedient of shooting them.

The prisoners held at Gitmo are, for the most part, what is known under international law as francs-tireurs,” non-uniformed militiamen who conduct sabotage and terrorism operations against occupation forces. Under Article 4 of the Geneva Conventions, fighters eligible for the protections extended to prisoners of war are obliged to meet several criteria, including the wearing of uniforms or fixed insignia and — here’s the rub for the Islamic State et al. — conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Non-uniformed militiamen and insurgents sawing the heads off of Wall Street Journal reporters do not qualify for Geneva Convention protections. They are, under the applicable international law, subject to summary execution, as are captured spies, terrorists, and the like.

So: Why not shoot them?

RELATED: Why Closing Gitmo Is Still a Terrible Idea

This takes us to a broader moral question about the use of execution per se. While U.S. military policy is not governed by Catholic teaching, it is worth considering Rome’s thinking on the question. If you listened only to U.S. bishops, who have an unfortunate weakness for peddling social-justice nostrums, you’d be tempted to conclude that the Catholic Church is categorically opposed to the practice of capital punishment. In fact, canon law is much more sophisticated than the Nerf-headed progressivism that dominates the American episcopal corpus, and it takes account of such relevant considerations as whether the sparing of an offender’s life might put innocents in mortal danger. We already have adjudicated that question: That the prisoners at Gitmo present a mortal danger both to U.S. forces abroad as well as civilians in the United States and around the world is precisely why they remain prisoners at Gitmo. Those who have been judged (often wrongly!) to present no future threat are discharged. Catholic or otherwise, the fact that these men are likely to commit unspeakable outrages of the sort that we have come to expect from the worldwide Islamic-supremacist movement is unavoidably relevant.

So: Why not shoot them?

#share#A main part of President Obama’s indictment of Gitmo is the fact — and there is no doubt that it is a fact — that the prison is used in recruitment propaganda by Islamic radicals. Gitmo, like drone strikes, is deeply unpopular among jihadists. There is a reason for that: Drone strikes kill jihadists, and Gitmo keeps them out of the game. Everything the United States does to defend itself against Islamic supremacists is unpopular with Islamic supremacists — that doesn’t mean that we give them a veto over our national-security policy. No doubt executing the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay would send a shock through the Islamic world. Perhaps such a shock would be not entirely unhealthy.

So: Why not shoot them?

RELATED: Why Obama Must Defer to Congress on Gitmo

There have been reports of abuse at Gitmo, though of relatively tame stuff compared with, say, your average Thursday night at Rikers Island, where New York City jailers negligently roasted a homeless veteran to death. Parts of the facility are in poor repair, and one food-preparation area — for our troops, not the prisoners — was found to present an “above-average risk for food-borne illness” in a 2011 report. Typical government work, in other words. Abuses should be investigated and punished, and necessary maintenance should be undertaken. All of that should — but does not necessarily   go without saying. But none of it is an argument against Gitmo — or, at least, not an argument against Gitmo that doesn’t apply with equal force to Fort Leavenworth, Lompoc, or Terminal Island.

If your complaint is that Gitmo is expensive to operate, consider that bullets are cheap.

So: Why not shoot them?

Both international law and careful moral consideration make room for summarily executing the prisoners at Gitmo.

Both international law and careful moral consideration make room for summarily executing the prisoners at Gitmo. Perhaps you do not find that argument satisfactory. Perhaps something gnaws at your conscience when you consider the prospect of simply lining these men up and shooting them down. You can be confident that no such scruple infests the consciences of these men, who are part of a global undertaking that is positively giddy about the prospect of burning children alive and raping women to death to prove a point.

By way of comparison to what justice might actually bear, the conditions at Gitmo — three hot halal meals and a Koran — are indeed a powerful testament to American values, though not the sort of values that Barack Obama imagines. Gitmo may not exactly be the “resort” that its defenders sometimes joke that it is, but we could do worse — much worse — with these men and be entirely justified doing it.

If you do not like Gitmo, there are alternatives. But you might not like those, either.

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