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Opinion

Closing Guantanamo will be a mistake

Much of the public perception of the detention camps is wrong.

By Anne Marie Drew / September 11, 2009



Annapolis, Md.

I am freshly home from a trip to Guantánamo Bay, where I visited the Joint Task Force detention camps. I saw the cells and the recreation pods and the communal areas of the detainees. I watched as those who prefer to do their own laundry hung out their clothes to dry.

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I watched young guards patrol the cellblocks, checking on the detainees at least every three minutes. One detainee smiled at me as if we were enjoying Sunday breakfast.

The general perception of the detention camps is erroneous. What I saw was a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled, clean facility.

President Obama is determined to close these camps by winter. Gitmo, he said in May, "has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies.... By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it."

It will be wrong to close these camps, in what can only be a symbolic gesture, simply for the sake of closing them.

Whatever moral authority America has lost by its treatment of these detainees will not be regained by moving them. Whatever mistakes we made will not be erased. Closing Gitmo will not make us safer.

Many people believe that the executive order Mr. Obama issued just two days after taking office means shutting down torture chambers and freeing innocent detainees, held for years without due process.

It does no such thing.

The problems, real or imagined, will simply move if the camps close.

There is no geographic cure for Gitmo.

The executive order does not release the suspects. If they are not freed or deported, then they will be transferred. But moving them to another prison somewhere in the United States seems pointless at best and dangerous at worst.

The current detention camps are radically different from the initial holding cells in Camp X-Ray, where, post-9/11, we held the suspected terrorists in a now-deserted, overgrown, feces-covered space. This camp, originally built as a prison for the criminal element of the Haitian migration in the 1990s, was used only until April 2002, when the new camps became ready.

Much of the public perception of Gitmo stems from photos of the suspected terrorists in orange jumpsuits, shackled and sitting in the dirt at this now-abandoned camp.

No detainee has been at Camp X-Ray for years.

Certainly, Gitmo is a dreadful place, filled with human suffering, on both sides of the wire. From his cell window, one detainee gave me the finger; one glared at me with piercing hatred; one shouted, "It's bad. Really, really bad," as he vigorously gave a thumbs down.

Walking the narrow, gravel paths inside the camps, I dodged barbed wire to avoid getting my face sliced.

In one TV room, leg shackles are bolted to the concrete floor. A guard explained, "The detainees like this room. They only have to wear leg shackles. Normally when they're moving about, they have to wear wrist and hand shackles as well."

That's the type of place Gitmo is, a place where a human being is happy when only his legs are shackled.

It is also a place where the guards must don latex gloves and face masks before entering a cell, in order to avoid being hit in the face with a cocktail of human fluids and excrement.

These are real horrors and we ought not turn away from them. But there's no warrant for the popular conflation of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, as if the two are synonyms. Closing Gitmo will not reverse the wretched evil of the Iraqi facility where US soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners.

Guantánamo's very remoteness – on the southeastern tip of Cuba – renders it uniquely secure. Closing it while trying to re-create a version elsewhere, say in Kansas or Michigan, threatens US security because the new site could become a top target for terrorist attacks. A mass transfer could also jeopardize the security of the detainees.

If we are not going to release the remaining 229 detainees, then there is substantial danger in moving them.

Obama officials have considered creating a courtroom-prison hybrid facility in the states to hold suspected terrorists. Why? The most highly secured, most technologically advanced courtroom in the world has already been built at Guantánamo.

The moral problems surrounding US treatment of the detainees are not geographic ones. If we move them, the detainees will still be captive. Some may still never see the evidence against them. Some may never come to trial.

Once there were more than 700 detainees at Gitmo. We have processed hundreds already. Moving the entire operation elsewhere will delay justice for those remaining.

There is no geographic cure for Gitmo.

Anne Marie Drew teaches English at the US Naval Academy.

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