January 30, 2009

Closing Guantanamo: Halting Unjust Practices or Unleashing Terrorism?

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Following one of our nation’s most memorable moments in history, newly elected President Obama swiftly enacted several executive orders. One of the orders called for the closure of America’s intensely debated terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay. While many fear this and feel that a prison such as Gitmo is necessary for fighting terrorism, the practices used there are in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution and the rights guaranteed to the accused. When defending our nation it becomes easy to neglect the rights of those involved in terrorist activity, but is this fair for a country which was founded on principles of liberty, justice, and equality?

In 2001, the Bush administration acted promptly in response to the brutal attacks our country faced on September 11. For years, no one ever thought twice about getting on a plane when traveling until that day, when we were cruelly attacked without warning. Consequently, we will never have the same freedoms we were so accustomed to and fear will linger forever when we remember the terror we all felt. Among the actions taken by President Bush was the formation of Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp as a facility to house all those suspected of terrorist activities. With two wars raging in the Middle East, the tactics used at Guantanamo Bay to interrogate and imprison terrorist suspects quickly escalated. As time passed, many prisoners experienced inhumane and unjust treatment regardless of the fact that many had not been convicted of any criminal charges, pending trial.

Our country prides itself on having a democracy and freedoms that many never experience. One of the most recognizable and appreciated is the presumption of innocence. Trial by jury, right to counsel, ability to have an attorney regardless of financial capability, and more, provide all suspects the rights they deserve. The aforementioned rights ensure that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty regardless of the crime committed and the likelihood of conviction. Furthermore, even those who commit the most heinous of crimes are given these rights, and while criminals may experience bias in a situation such as this, they are always given the opportunity to speak in their defense. The majority of prisoners at Guantanamo is denied this opportunity and has been wrongly detained for crimes they had no involvement in. Generally, they pose little or no risk to our country.

One story is of great controversy and disgust to human rights activists. It involves a U.S. resident named Ali al-Marri who has been ordered, indefinitely detained in solitary confinement (without any trial or hearing) for his status as an “enemy combatant”. As of right now, he has been at several different detention centers for five and a half years, including Guantanamo. However, President Obama has just ordered a review of al-Marria’s case in the second executive order implemented within hours of his inauguration. Of course, there is always the possibility that al-Marri has involvement in terrorist activity, but shouldn’t he have the opportunity to present his defense, especially as a U.S. resident? More details on the case, including a video produced by his attorney, are available at www.aclu.org. This is just one example of the unfair practices instituted at Gitmo, as there are many others that are much more gruesome, such as brutal beatings, the imprisonment of child soldiers, and forced feeding.

While we all have differing opinions about how suspected terrorists should be treated, we must remember that a country cannot fight in defense of democracy while engaging in practices that violate democratic principles. The exercise of unconstitutional practices fails to demonstrate the success of democracy and the ways in which we want other countries to behave. One cannot do wrong and then accuse others of the same and inflict punishment for such behaviors.

The closing of Gitmo will end most unconstitutional practices imposed on those suspected of terrorist activities, but it will also take away one of the only deterrents for those involved in terrorism. Therefore, a door may open for those who are engaging in such activities. In this situation, the question is not whether the closing of Gitmo is right or wrong from a political standpoint, but what is just and unjust for a democratic nation. We must decide if we truly want to promote democracy and end terrorism or simply defend our own country and people from the dangers of the world. Are democratic principles such as human rights and justice becoming less important than demonstrating our power as a country?

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