Friday, January 23, 2009

War on Terror: RIP

Without getting into the politics of this too much (impossible, I know), we need to look at the Executive Orders signed yesterday by the president which effectively shuttered Guantanamo Bay, ended the practice of extraordinary rendition, and relegated waterboarding back its rightful place: as torture, and therefore illegal.

First, what was astonishing about Obama's orders wasn't so much the scope and breadth (as Dana Priest writes in today's WaPo, "Bush's War on Terror" is over), but the openness of event. On the new White House website, you can actually peruse all three orders in their entirety (click the links above, or go to the WH site).

Second, and more predictably, though there are still loopholes in the fine print which leave the president options, the chest-thumping over these "catastrophic" decisions has started, replete with hysterical "warnings" such as, "If Obama allows al-Qaeda to regain its Iraqi havens, and the terrorists use them to strike our country, he will not be able to blame Bush," and "he cannot dismantle those tools without risking catastrophic consequences."

Despite the bleating rhetoric, this is absurd and here's why. Fundamentally, terrorism is a crime, which defacto makes the terrorist a criminal, quite capable of being tried, convicted and imprisoned on U.S. soil (see also: 1.6 million prisoners in U.S. prisons today; scores of terrorists already imprisoned in U.S.). The fact is, not all of the remaining 245 detainees at Gitmo will be brought and tried here. Many will be "sent home" or repatriated by other countries, including their home countries.

Some have not committed crimes or actions against the U.S., but are dubbed "too dangerous" to let go, and so the question of what to do with them is more pressing. One theory is that they could simply be classified "prisoners of war" and held for the duration of the conflict with al-Qaeda, however long that might be.

A second school of thought, building on our organized crime prosecutions of the Mob, is that these "too dangerous to let go" people could be charged under RICO (al-Qaeda is a "corrupt organization" after all) or some other conspiracy charge and prosecuted in our federal system or the military's system of justice.

The main "fear" of what to do (especially turning them loose) seems centered around recidivism, and while the the worry over recidivism (repeat criminal or terrorist behavior) is understandable, it's also contextual. It is certainly possible one of these persons could be sent back overseas only to "strike our country again." But it is far more likely that one of our own, home-grown criminals (or terrorists) will strike you long before al-Qaeda does.

With a recidivism rate of roughly 66% here in the U.S., you are much more likely to killed by a fellow U.S. citizen than you are one of these detainees, who could be sent thousands of miles away. Homicide routinely kills more 16,000 people in this country each year, and more people died at the hands of their fellow citizens in 2001 than did on 9/11 and the terrorist strikes.

That's not to minimize or trivialize any death, but the point is that recidivism is always a worry, no matter what type or kind of criminal we are discussing. If these Gitmo detainees are repatriated correctly we can minimize the chance of such a future attack. Frankly, I'd feel safer if we put more emphasis on"repatriating" our own inmates when they get out, and trying to lower recidivism here.

Regarding "where would they go" for those who might be brought here and prosecuted, the answer is simple: any major administrative segregation prison in the country (of which we have boatloads). While Leavenworth, Kansas is being mentioned, there's no reason why any of the 9/11 plotters couldn't be incarcerated in ADX Florence out in Colorado, or Marion, Illinois, or Terre Haute, Indiana, or Pelican Bay, California (if you want to take it out of the federal system). You could even send them to our massive $60 million military prison in Afghanistan.

The point is this: we already hold convicted terrorists on U.S. soil. In Florence, there resides terrorists related to the first World Trade Center attack from 1993, along with Richard Reid, Zacarias Mousaoui, and other al-Qaeda members (not to mention the domestic terrorists), and there has never been an attack on the prison itself because of these high value inmates. The notion that somehow these Gitmo detainees are "more dangerous" than any U.S. prison can handle is silly.

If you go back and read the plethora of Supreme Court terrorism decisions beginning in 2004, the orders of the court were clear: charge these people, try them, and if convicted, lock them up (or administer the death penalty, if so inclined). But do something with them. You can't keep holding them in this legal black hole.

At the end of the day, as Obama himself made clear, none of these moves signals an end to counterterrorism efforts here or abroad. We'll fight the "war" with these criminals on legal and constitutional grounds, following Supreme Court decisions, and abiding by our Constitution (that this has to be reiterated is still hard to believe).

What these orders might signal, however, is the end of terrorism as political capital. I'm skeptical, because we do love declaring "war" on inanimate objects, but perhaps the days of "color-coded terrorism alerts" now lie on the ash heap of history.

UPDATE: someone asked yesterday what should be done with the Gitmo facility once the last of the detainees is shipped out. Didn't Don Rumsfeld once refer to it as "beautiful, sunny, Guantanamo Bay," as if it were some resort destination? My suggestion would be to "Alcatraz" it and turn it into a tourist destination (ironically, Sen. Diane Feinstein suggested "re-opening Alcatraz to house Gitmo detainees" before realizing it's already a national history site and park).

Turning Gitmo into a tourist attraction sounds absurd until you consider the thousands of visitors who sail out to gawk at "The Rock" in the San Francisco Bay every year.


Farhana said...

The funny thing is there wasn't much of "al-Qaeda" in Iraq because wahadism and its philosophy wasn't allowed by Saddam Hussein and his regime. Only when the US invaded Iraq did al-Quaeda flock to Iraq in the name of helping their fellow Muslim brothers now that the dictator wasn't there to keep them out. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 when it happend but now al-Quaeda could spread like wild fire with the way things are.

Farhana said...

"wahhabism", not wahadism