09/03/2011

What has happened to the audacity of hope? Mr. President, tear down that prison

obama ap.jpgAs debates rage about what to do to stop the bombing of civilians in Libya - not just whether or not to intervene, but also what kind of intervention would be legally and politically acceptable - President Obama this week signed an order to resume military tribunals against suspected terrorists being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Two years after his order to halt new military charges against detainees, and after his early pledge to close the controversial facility, the President set out new procedures for the re-activated military commissions.

Without clearly admitting that he had failed on his pledge, the President said, "the United States has worked to bring terrorists to justice consistent with our commitment to protect the American people and uphold our values".

Civil liberties defenders were not impressed. "People in the Mideast are looking to establish new rules for their societies, and this sends a mixed message at best," said the President of Human Rights First.


While all kinds of reasons can be given for the shift in position - from not finding proper venues for the trials or places to send those considered less important to the influence of the right-wing Republicans and the upcoming presidential election - what is undeniable is that the President has gone back on his word. Is this a problem? Most people will not think so; they will understand what the President tried to do, and understand the obstacles to achieving his objectives. Most people will probably think he was naïve to announce the closing in the first place.

I am less forgiving. Closing the prison is a symbolic act representing much more than just how to deal with 172 detainees. Guantanamo, like the photos of the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, represents a remnant of much of the War on Terror that went beyond liberal values. In the name of security, fundamental rights were ignored, including rendition and torture. President Obama was elected on a platform of transformation and change. What we see in this decision, as well as several others, is a continuation of previous policies which were clearly rejected by the American people in November 2008.

The Arab spring has brought joy and hope to an entire region. People are risking their lives for freedom and dignity. The United States, or the ideal of the United States, has been an important beacon for many of the rebels. President Obama's election was supposed to introduce an era of change. His speech in Cairo was enthusiastically welcomed. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all they stood for, was supposed to be gone. Barack Obama was the embodiment of the real America.

What has happened to the audacity of hope? Mr. President, tear down that prison.

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