As of this week, at least 100 of the 166 men held at Guantanamo Bay prison have joined the hunger strike that began in January.
The hunger strike at Guantanamo seems to have reminded the president that the prison is still there. On Tuesday, Obama addressed the issue head-on at a White House news conference. “The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are, contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop,” he said, according to The New York Times. Yet despite his campaign promises back in 2008, Guantanamo is still open, and though the president stepped back from the issue in his first term, the hunger strike has refocused his attention.
I sympathize with the president’s feelings, if not with his objectives.
Shutting down Guantanamo is not a simple issue. The problem is that we are at war with an idea and a movement, not a nation. The prisoners taken in that war must wait for peace, but there is no counterparty with which we can conclude a treaty to secure it. It is not difficult to understand why prisoners succumb to despair while waiting for peace, which very well may not come in our lifetimes, as a prerequisite for their eventual release.
There are only three valid reasons to continue to detain prisoners at Guantanamo. First, it is possible that some of them may have information that could save lives. However, since virtually all the prisoners currently in the facility have been detained there for many years, very little information of this sort is likely to come from them in the future.
The second reason is that some of the detainees have no place to go. Certain prisoners, such those who are part of the Muslim Uighur minority in China, were captured on the battlefields in Afghanistan but would face persecution if returned to their native countries. These prisoners may not be a direct threat to the United States, but neither do they qualify for admission to our country, unless we take the remarkable step of changing their status from “enemy combatant” to “asylum grantee.”
But the third, and most valid, reason to confine enemies indefinitely is that they remain our enemies. As long as the jihadi movement that declares Americans a target wherever they can be harmed remains viable, and as long as there is any realistic chance that detainees continue to sympathize with this movement, we have a right to defend ourselves by preventing them from rejoining it. Currently, we primarily defend ourselves through lethal drone attacks, but since these people were captured alive, it is our duty to keep them in that condition if it is in our power to do so. But it is also in our interest to keep them.
Imagine the outcry if, for example, the Boston Marathon bombing turned out to involve a former Guantanamo detainee who had been released. That particular scenario appears highly unlikely, but it is certainly not implausible that some detainees would resume their violent activities elsewhere in the world, given a chance to do so. According to the military, some already have, though the exact numbers are a subject of debate.
It is entirely proper that violent extremists who commit crimes inside America be prosecuted in the American civil court system, as will be the case for the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. But American prosecutors and courts do not have global jurisdiction. Battlefield captures are not subject to the normal rules of criminal prosecution. Soldiers are not cops, and there are no crime scene investigation units available to collect and preserve evidence at extremist hideouts in Afghan mountains or the Somali bush.
We should absolutely make our best effort to identify and release detainees who never were, or who no longer are, threats to our citizens. But there is no reason to liberate people who we believe have supported violence against us and who we have reason to believe might do the same again if they are able. In some circumstances, we can safely return detainees to their home governments (as indeed we have in the past). But most detainees remaining at Guantanamo today lack the option of repatriation for one reason or another.
We have certain responsibilities to those we hold in custody as enemy combatants. Some prisoners have been forcibly fed during the current hunger strike. Many commentators, including Jeremy A. Lazarus, president of the American Medical Association, have claimed such tactics violate the medical ethics of the doctors involved. The military disagrees, and so do I, for this reason: The prisoners are not declining medical treatment because they wish to starve. What they want is to be freed, or at least to have the conditions of their detention altered – options our military, charged with fighting this amorphous war, has determined it must deny. The detainees thus are not making a voluntary choice between two options. These are not patients. These are prisoners, who lack many freedoms. Freedom to leave is one; freedom to starve is another. Those who hold the contrary position might as well argue that we ought to furnish a cyanide capsule to any detainee who demands one.
Having detained these men, we have a moral and a legal obligation not to let them die. Our right to continue to hold them, for our own protection, goes hand in hand with our responsibility to preserve their lives.
The reality is that Obama did not fail to close Guantanamo because he simply forgot about it. He failed because, for the past five years, he has had no better options. No matter what his current emotions on the topic may be, his options have not changed.