Friday, November 13, 2009

To Close or Not to Close…

"They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.”
Benjamin Franklin

The word Guantanamo has become synonymous not with America’s War on Terror or her defense of the ideals of freedom but with un-democratic prison camps. A place where enemy combatants are held indefinitely, without charge and even denied Geneva Convention rights as well as access to and representation from council. They are in a state of limbo. In fact, Guantanamo Bay is not even located on American soil, so it is fair to say that they are also in a place of limbo, where the long arm of US Federal law and the greatness of her democratic principles do not apply. There is little argument today that while Guantanamo served to hold men with no status and no criminal charges, it has served greater purpose in damaging America’s moral standing in the world and sullied her reputation as a great democracy. It’s difficult for the US government to tell other nations to free prisoners who are being held for “treason” against their government when the US herself holds men with no status, even if they are not American citizens or political prisoners. I am sure there are those among you who feel it is a small price to pay, to keep America safe from men who seek to harm her and inflict untold damage to her property and people. But to my mind the argument for closing Guantanamo needs to go far beyond a debate simply between liberal or conservative ideologies and their corresponding positions on national security. To my mind the discussion around closing Guantanamo should focus on one thing – and that is whether its continued existence will erode the very heart of the democratic ideals on which this country has been built, and the reason why it remains the most democratic superpower even today.

At first blush my statement might seem ridiculous, to suggest that the fundamentals of American democracy might one day suffer based on the existence of a prison camp on some forty-five square miles of land and water. But a look back at recent history will tell us that these types of actions in a democracy, which may seem small or inconsequential at the time, have a tendency to grow and expand over time and power always gets abused by people. So even the most well-intentioned laws created to protect national security or citizens from evils the world faces cannot be allowed to exist outside the existing framework of the laws of the land. They should be contained and able to operate within the confines of existing laws, even if there is a need for enhancements or amendments based on the realities of the dangers we face today. The moment a nation feels compelled to go beyond the existing legal framework and begin to create a separate one, and most often one that is also shrouded in secrecy, we begin the slippery slide into a murky world where the blindness and impartiality of justice can never prevail. Simply because there is no transparency and because government lawmakers become the sole indictors, enforcers, judge and jury. A true democracy holds itself to higher ideals. A great democracy does not need to operate in the shadows.

One argument that was been forwarded by the US government, for opening Guantanamo Bay, was that these modern day terrorists are more evil than the evilest of men. Suggesting that these men are somehow more evil and more bent on destruction than evil men in generations’ prior, so the need arises for another system of incarceration. Well, I for one have still not witnessed greater evil than Adolf Hitler. The fact that he managed to seduce an entire nation into his sickness and delusion, got them to look the other way and many to actively participate in his cold blooded murder is more than Osama Bin Laden has come close to doing in attracting a handful of illiterate, misguided and poverty-stricken youth. The terrorists of today don’t even come close to the sheer lunacy, audacity and barbaric nature of Hitler’s Germany and their plans to systematically and methodically wipe out an entire race of people. The point is that given the heinous nature of Germany’s crimes, as atrocious and inhuman as they were, it elicited a response from the world where those individuals held responsible were tracked down, arrested, charged and then punished in a court of law. A court that operated within the confines of a democratic process, before the public eye where justice meted out and served in broad daylight. The other important point about the Nuremberg trials is that the legal framework for prosecution of the War Crimes came about after discussion, debate and finally agreement between all the Allies. It was not a unilateral decision or one led and defined by a single country or government. Sure WW II was global and involved most every large nation but is this not even truer of the war against terrorism? These terrorists recognise no geographical boundaries; they represent no state or flag and care not what colour, race or religion they kill. Surely, America does not believe that she alone faces this nameless, faceless and stateless enemy?

In fact, America, unlike a host of other nations has not faced terror on her soil for very long. Mainly, because of her geographical location, which makes it hard for would-be terrorists to penetrate her borders with weapons and because of her population, which makes it harder for these men to blend in and disappear. Consider for a moment the list of countries that have had to deal with and even today live with terrorism on a daily basis, largely because of the geography that surrounds them and the history that transpired before them. This list includes India, Israel, Russia and China, and what I find interesting is the way each country has chosen to deal with the problem. Both India and Israel have dealt with homegrown and external terrorism since their independence, some 60+ years ago. Both have borders that are easy to penetrate and hard to police. Both have complex multi-denominational populations and thousands of years of history behind them. Both are democracies and proudly uphold and cherish their democratic freedoms and ideals. And both have lost untold life to terrorism over dozens of years. Yet both these countries continue to use the existing legal system to try, prosecute and convict terrorists, successfully. Sure, there are often issues of national security involved in these proceedings and they are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Exceptions are made as needed but they never deviate or feel compelled to set up a parallel system of justice purely to try or incarcerate these terrorists. They convict them in a court of law based on the evidence against them, give them due process and a chance to defend themselves, just like the Nazis had and for the same reason – because this is what fundamentally differentiates us from them. Now, consider on the other hand the China’s and Russia’s of the world, both countries that consider themselves democratic, in some form or another, albeit the term is considered used loosely in the eyes of the rest of the world. Both face similar problems with internal and external terrorism, yet the manner in which they deal with them is completely different from India and Israel. It involves subterfuge, secret courts and trial proceedings, media blackouts, no access to council and mostly all of it conducted deep in the shadows of their so-called democratic processes and far away from public eyes. There is a reason people do not cite Russia or China as examples when they talk about democracy and democratic principles, but instead talk of their shady human rights record. A state that has a transparent legal system for one type of criminal offences and a second, hidden and shadowy system for other types of offences can never be considered democratic because there can only be one set of rules and interpretation of them for everyone, the law of the land. Justice must always be blind. The moment one feels the need to take off or slightly open the blindfold, even just a little bit, one begins to compromise this basic principle. And it is this principle that separates true democracy from the pretenders of Russia, Iran, China, Egypt and so on. So the US decision to leave open or close Guantanamo Bay’s prison camps will determine which type of democracy she chooses to be associated with in the future.

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