by Kiko Matsing
“On day one, symbolism is substance,” says George Stephanopoulos on ABC World News, referring to Obama’s first presidential acts in office (US News and World Report, 24 Jan 2009). And indeed, in a symbolic act of distinguishing himself from his predecessor, Obama ordered the closure of the controversial terrorist detention camp in Guantanamo Bay and “an immediate case-by-case review of the 245 detainees remaining there, and the application of new rules governing the treatment and interrogation of prisoners, including compliance with international treaties” (Washington Post, 22 Jan 2009). The camp, often just referred to as Gitmo, is much reviled in media and the public for its handling of detainees where, according to the Bush doctrine, hard interrogation procedures (euphemism for torture) are required in obtaining vital intelligence information. The sticking point is the assertion that terrorists are the exception where regular practices prescribed in international treatises do not apply.
The nagging question now is: What is to be done with the prisoners?
Listed options include repatriation to their home nations or a willing third country, civil trials in this country, or a special civil or military system. Prisoners are to be released or transferred on a rolling basis as soon as individual cases are reviewed and determinations made as to whether the detainees can and should be prosecuted, and where. (Washington Post, 22 Jan 2009)
The idea of prisoners who remain a threat to civilized society being simply released or repatriated is unsettling, especially after a recent AP news item appeared about Al-Jawary, a convicted terrorist whose sentence is up come February 19. His dossier includes a failed attempt to detonate three powerful bombs in New York and possible involvement in the bombing of a TWA flight in 1974 that killed 88 people.
Once he’s released, Al-Jawary will be handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and held until his deportation.
It remains unclear where he’ll go, largely because Al-Jawary’s true identity remains in question–even to this day.
Those who helped put Al-Jawary behind bars believe he’ll pick up where he left off.
“What is he going to do when he gets out?” McTigue [who worked on the New York Police Department’s bomb squad] said. “He’ll be deported and received as a hero and go right back into his terrorist activities. He’s had years to think about nothing else but causing havoc and destruction.” (Yahoo News, 24 Jan 2009)
It is a struggle for a free and democratic society to preserve its way of life in the face of terror threats, and at the same time hold itself up to the ideals it most values, that is, the upholding of individual rights and liberties. There is no country in the world where this tension is greater and where it is most palpable in everyday discourse. Indeed, the election of Obama to the presidency, commonly interpreted as a repudiation of the Bush policies, belongs to this discourse–a sign of how this society grapples with the challenges of living in freedom.
Some may see the closing of Gitmo as the US’s gesture of atonement for the sins (or, to the cynical, the bad press) of Abu Ghraib. I would like to think that it is part of the larger struggle that Obama appealed to in his inaugural address: “the choice between our safety and our ideals”. I also hope, on the other hand, that the closing of Gitmo does not signal the current administration’s loss of resolve against evil, nor that it has forgotten what its face looks like. After February 19, I cannot help but feel a little bit more dread when I hop on a plane.