To Patrick Appel: You keep arguing “symbolism.” My argument focuses on a tangible, real, non-symbolic problem: Where do the detainees go? Very few members of the close-Gitmo crowd want to even acknowledge this fundamental question.
The options discussed so far are right next to a nuclear power plant in Southern California, right next to the facility for educational and training programs for foreign military students at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas*, and right in the middle of northern Charleston, South Carolina, three miles or so from an airport.
If a detainee were to escape Guantanamo Bay, they would have the option of running to Cubans or sharks, and getting roughly the same warm welcome from both. A detainee who escapes from any of the U.S. sites is within quick reach of terror targets, potential hostages, means of escape, etc.
(This is why Diego Garcia has some appeal – get out of a prison there, and you’re just looking at a lot of ocean.)
Appel writes, “I don’t see why American prisons are incapable of handing Gitmo detainees – they house domestic terrorists already.”
First, not all dangerous men are the same. It’s hard to picture militia members, the Crips, Bloods, or what have you doing something as extreme as, say, crashing a plane into the prison to faciliate an escape and/or provide martyrdom to their brethren.
For those who say, “oh, these detainees will never escape, it would be maximum security,” it happened from the prison at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Another breakout in an Afghan prison freed 400 captured Taliban. In Yemen, captured al-Qaeda broke out, possibly with help from the inside. We’ve seen captured al-Qaeda escape from prisons in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. And Morocco. An al-Qaeda plotter escaped from a Pakistani prison, and other attempts to break them out have been foiled.
But Appel writes, “And how housing detainees in maximum security prisons impacts the American citizens residing nearby is beyond me.” You would think one might be familiar with escapes of violent and in some cases, death row criminals from high or maximum-security facilities in New Mexico, Louisiana, Texas (more than once), Virginia, Iowa, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Pennsylvania…
Appel asks me, “What do we gain by keeping detainees at Gitmo?” The answer is, “the assurance that they will not harm Americans further, even if they manage to escape” — a scenario that has not happened yet. The nation may decide that factor is not paramount, but it’s not something to dismiss, either.
The same assurance cannot be provided by domestic prisons. Or, you know, we could trade this assurance for some “symbolic” benefit that Appel deems paramount, and he rather blithely admits, “Trying detainees won’t appear legitimate unless we bring them under the American system, and if we do that some very bad men will go free.”
Will go free… and go back to their life’s mission, killing Americans. But that’s okay; in exchange for your life, Appel and those like him will no longer have to live with the disapproving words of Le Monde.
* From Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, whose district includes Leavenworth: “Sherman Army Airfield, adjacent to Fort Leavenworth, is too small for military aircraft, which would require the suspected terrorists to be transported through Kansas City International Airport.” But hey, why worry about these kinds of details; there’s symbolism at stake!
UPDATE: Chris Bodenner, another of Andrew Sullivan’s guest-bloggers, jumps in, citing posts in response to a Leavenworth Times as evidence that Americans want al-Qaeda to be moved to prisons in their neighborhood. He says three of the “majority” of the responses come from a retired Army sergeant, a federal retiree who helped build the Army prison, and a retired Navy vet, as well as Bodenner’s father.
(He says “the overwhelming majority of reader comments support the transfer.” I count ten comments I would characterize as “yes” to the transfer, and seven “no,” not counting, “Bring on them ali-babba speaking sons-a-bitches! We’llgive’m an old fashioned, midwestern @$$-whoppin.” [sic] Several posters leave more than one comment.)
I’m sure those three posters to the Leavenworth Times and Bodenner’s dad are swell guys, but the presumption in Bodenner’s argument is that these four guys can assess the risk to the area better than local lawmakers, the mayors of Leavenworth and Lansing, and various community groups. (Also, the posters to the Leavenworth Times who objected to the idea – just a bunch of ignorant yokels? No vets or folks familiar with the prison among them?)
The objections of Sen. Sam Brownback, Rep. Lynn Jenkins, the mayor of Leavenworth, the mayor of Lansing, representatives of the Leavenworth-Lansing Area Chamber of Commerce, the Leavenworth County Development Corporation and the fLeavenworth public schools and in a later post, Democratic Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, are all dismissed as meaningless NIMBYism and empty “tough on terrorism” posturing by the Atlantic guys.
Well, look, maybe these guys will never understand the complexities of detaining terrorists as well as, say, an editorial assistant at The Atlantic magazine or a staff writer at National Journal, but their objections at the very least deserve a hearing before the transfer is finalized. And it’s rather revealing that when the argument is put forth, “hey, if we’re gonna close Gitmo, we ought to figure out where they’ll go and take local objections into account”, the close-Gitmo crowd dismisses those objections with a wave of a hand as illegitimate, parochial whining. The argument is, ‘never mind the howls of protest from those elected to represent the interests of those who live there; I found three guys who posted on the web that like the idea.”
ANOTHER UPDATE: I don’t intend to argue this topic until the end of time, but one last point from a reader on the spot:
I work at Fort Leavenworth as an Army Civilian. I’m also a former soldier and ran the operations for a major security company a number of years ago. My family and I live in Lansing. I can tell you the overwhelming consensus of the neighbors I live with and my coworkers on post think moving the detainees to Fort Leavenworth is stupid idea. I would tell you that blogging on the Leavenworth Times website is rarely representative of the popular opinion around here. That is certainly the case here. Just in the security aspects, moving terrorists here to either the Federal or military prison lacks a thorough evaluation. This is a political decision to close Gitmo. Heck, they don’t even have a plan yet of what they’re going to do with the prisoners once Gitmo is closed. Oh, by the way, we have had a major escape from both the military prison and one of the state prisons in the last decade. Just because we have a military prison doesn’t make escapes less likely.