Jonathan M. Hansen: Don't close Gitmo

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan M. Hansen, author of The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890-1920, is writing a book about the history of Guantánamo Bay.]

... Instead of closing the detention centre, we should finish the job begun there over the last few years by JAG lawyers, human rights advocates and the press, who have introduced a measure of law and transparency to what has always been an obscure place.

To be sure, Guantánamo has been tainted by scandal. But if we had jettisoned all our tainted institutions historically, we'd have no institutions left. Let us mend Guantánamo, not end it. Let the light shine in.

We might think of the process of overhauling the prison camp as a project of truth and reconciliation. To remedy the current system we will have to fully acknowledge what went on there. By demonstrating that we can acknowledge and remedy a grievous wrong, we will remind the world what makes America great.

The process of truth finding should begin with the Obama administration assigning legal responsibility for the torture and abuse at Guantánamo. Our forward-looking new president seems to lack the stomach for this. A precipitous closing of the prison camp only plays in to Obama's hands, and one imagines the masterminds of US detention policy hoping the Obama administration can successfully hold off congressional investigators.

By contrast, the overhaul of the Guantánamo detention facility would have to begin with a meticulous airing of the arguments and decision-making process that led Bush-administration officials to dispense with legal and time-tested detention procedures. It is not enough that future detention procedures be effective and legal. The laws themselves must be enforced. That's the way law works.

Next, we need the truth about how exactly Guantánamo fits into the nation's over-all detention and interrogation regimen. Momentum builds for the closing of Guantánamo just as escalating military engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan swells the ranks of detainees at Bagram airbase and other detention centres beyond the public eye. Close Guantánamo and what have we accomplished? What exactly is happening at Bagram? Where else are we detaining people? Under what conditions and for how long?

It is telling that, though the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban continues, there have been no new arrivals at Guantánamo, where detainees have been granted a bare minimum of legal rights. We should be careful about what we ask for. The devil we know may be better than the detainment we don't.

A commitment to truth is often the first step to reconciliation. The second step is public apology. As every child knows, apology entails an acknowledgment of responsibility coupled with a feeling of regret. Anathema to George Bush, apology seems to be within Obama's skill set. But it won't mean much unless it reflects the sentiment of the nation as a whole. It will mean still less if it stems from an incomplete account of what occurred at Guantánamo.

Money talks, and the US can advance the process of reconciliation by following an official apology with compensation for the innocent victims of torture and indefinite detention. But actions speak louder than words – and, one hopes, even money – and it is by our policies that our commitment to reconciliation will be judged. As Obama begins his second trimester in office, political, military and legal officials continue to discuss whether military or civilian codes of justice (or a hybrid of the two) offer the fairest, safest and most efficient means to process and try suspected terrorists....

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