Mr. Obama, Close Down This Jail!

PUBLIC PRESSURE IS finally building on President Obama to fulfill his promise to close the Guantanamo prison, which still houses 166 miserable leftovers from the Bush-Cheney “war on terror.” That pressure is well-placed. Gitmo has been a disaster from the beginning. Christians and other people of faith must join in calling for its closure.

Detainees were originally shipped to Gitmo in the vain hope of avoiding the reach of the U.S. judiciary. In this sense Gitmo was conceived in Constitution-evading sin. The Supreme Court rejected the evasion in 2006, but the damage was already done.

Some of the detainees brought to Gitmo were tortured. This has been confirmed by numerous sources, including a leaked 2006 Red Cross report and the 577-page report of a bipartisan blue-ribbon detainee panel organized by The Constitution Project, on which I served.

More than half of the remaining detainees have been cleared for release, but for domestic and geopolitical reasons they continue to be held. More than 100 of them are currently on a hunger strike, with dozens being force-fed, a practice that violates both American Medical Association and World Medical Association standards and which our Detainee Task Force condemned unequivocally.

Some detainees cannot be tried because the evidence against them was obtained by brutal or torturous means and is tainted or would be embarrassing to the U.S. Others are slated for trials in novel military commissions whose legal problems are so severe that they have not proceeded. Civilian trials on U.S. soil were blocked in 2009 by a fearful, recalcitrant Congress. So 166 men are held in limbo indefinitely, without trial and without foreseeable prospect of release. This is unconstitutional and a violation of the most basic legal and human rights.

There are many lessons to be learned from this debacle, especially if one searches deeply into its origins.

First, it was a mistake to treat the 9/11 attacks organized by non-state terrorists as constituting a “war” rather than as crimes. We have well-proven criminal justice mechanisms to find, capture, and prosecute criminals in fair trials—even criminals who commit acts of terrorism.

Second, 9/11 was quickly understood to be a “new kind of war” in which the U.S. would have to “work the dark side.” The U.S. military has long-standing rules for treating prisoners of war, including the protections of the Geneva Conventions, but these were set aside. The “new kind of war” required new, improvised detention regimens for those suspected of terrorism. Gitmo is the poster child of what improvisation gained us—torture, disgrace, and dysfunction.

Third, Gitmo reminds us of the fragility of constitutional democracy—even one as sturdy as our own. In extremis, the rule of law is always at risk. Like many other nations, when we faced a security crisis we lost confidence in the ability of our security and justice systems to protect us. Our leaders intentionally skirted the law and hid their actions behind the cloak of national security and state secrets. Congress rolled over and played dead, until it awakened long enough to block common sense solutions. The courts were generally deferential to the other branches.

Fourth, those who follow the Savior who taught us that “as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” should have been especially vigilant about what was going on at Gitmo. But once again, most Christians acted on national fears rather than discipleship commitments.

Gitmo should be closed in tandem with the approaching end of the war in Afghanistan—by 2014, if not before. This was the majority recommendation of our Detainee Task Force, which also offered specific steps to bring resolution of the various types of cases remaining. The end of the post-9/11 wars can and should mean the end of Gitmo. Christians should lead the way in pressing for its closing, by executive order if necessary. 

David P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.

Image: Demonstrators demand the closing of Guantanamo, Frontpage /

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Mr. Obama, Close Down This Jail!"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines