May: Would closing Guantanamo prison satisfy hunger strikers?

The sun rises over the Guantanamo detention facility The sun rises over the Guantanamo detention facility at dawn, at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. (May 13, 2009) Photo Credit: AP

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The detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was established in 2002 to hold the most dangerous of those captured in what the George W. Bush administration called the Global War on Terrorism. Controversy over the facility has simmered ever since. In recent days, it has begun to boil. One hundred detainees, at last count, are staging a hunger strike.

Their lawyers, along with some self-proclaimed human-rights activists, are insisting that the U.S. respond by closing Guantanamo, something President Barack Obama has long been eager to do. Questions seldom asked: How would that be accomplished? And what would it solve?

Closing "Gitmo" would require moving out those now detained. Where would they go? We could transfer them to prisons in the United States, but is there anyone who seriously believes that once on American soil these detainees would become hearty eaters and happy campers?

More likely, having learned that refusing food brings concessions, they would use that strategy again and again. U.S. prison officials would respond as have U.S. military authorities at Gitmo, letting the prisoners protest by not eating, but not letting them die -- instead, restraining them, if necessary, and administering the nutrition their bodies require.

In any case, the option of sending detainees from the detention facility at Guantanamo to prisons in America is moot for now because Congress, on a bipartisan basis, is adamantly opposed. Four years ago this month, the Senate voted 90-6 against spending the money necessary to close the Gitmo prison.

A second option: Let the detainees go. A little background may clarify why this, too, is not feasible. The Bush administration brought 779 prisoners to Guantanamo. By the time Obama became president, there were 240 left. Almost two-thirds had been transferred to their home countries or to a third country willing to take responsibility for them. But in some cases, neither of those options was available because it is U.S. policy not to turn detainees over to regimes that might summarily execute or otherwise abuse them.

During Obama's tenure, additional detainees have been shipped out. Of the 166 who remain, 46 are considered too dangerous to release or transfer.

That leaves 86 detainees "designated for transfer if security conditions can be met." That does not imply that they are innocent. It does not even imply that U.S. authorities are convinced they no longer pose a threat. On the contrary, of those released from Gitmo to date, an estimated 27 percent have returned to terrorist activities.

Of the 86 "designated for transfer," more than 50 come from Yemen. As The New York Times has reported, "Mr. Obama himself has indefinitely barred further repatriations (to Yemen) ... because of Yemen's active al-Qaida branch." That branch targets both Americans and the Yemeni government we're attempting to support.

Obama's decision seems sensible to me but not to The Washington Post's foreign-affairs blogger, Max Fisher, who calls the situation "almost Kafkaesque in its cruel absurdity." He asks if there isn't something "distasteful and unsettling about imprisoning people not because they've done anything wrong but because they might in the future?" He does not appear to understand that he's talking about members of al-Qaida, the Taliban and affiliated groups -- not goat herders who were heading to a cousin's wedding in Afghanistan when they got caught up in the malevolent maw of the U.S. military.

In times of war, presidents have the authority to kill the enemy. In the past, those captured rather than killed were considered lucky. It makes no sense -- legally, morally, logically -- to say that an enemy whom the president can kill with a drone or a SEAL team suddenly undergoes a metamorphosis (speaking of Kafka) transforming him into an innocent-until-proven-guilty suspect in a criminal investigation if he is handcuffed rather than buried.

And should our troops come to understand that anyone they capture rather than kill is likely to be pointing a gun at them again before long, they will be incentivized to use lethal force with increased frequency. Would that be preferable from a human-rights perspective?

Final point: When Fisher referred to Kafka, he was doubtless thinking of "The Trial," the story of a man arrested by a shadowy authority who conceals the nature of his crime. But Kafka also wrote "The Hunger Artist," about a performer who sits in a cage for weeks on end without eating. Eventually, the public loses interest in his "art," and he dies unnoticed and unmourned. I'm not suggesting that should influence U.S. policy. I am suggesting Fisher read it.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.

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