Almost precisely 36 hours after President-elect Obama declared on 60 Minutes that he will shut the Guantánamo Bay prison and end the sham military commission trials, our Air Force cargo prop plane lumbered down the very same runway at Andrews Air Force Base that the new president will use sometimes daily aboard Air Force One. But the “cargo” and destination of our plane today might be a surprise for anyone who voted for change, is reading about the transition, and watched 60 Minutes. The destination was Guantánamo, and the cargo was lawyers, interpreters, and everyone else needed to keep the military commission show going just a little longer.
After years of lobbying Congress to shut the Guantánamo prison and end the military commission trials, I arrived today for my first visit as the ACLU’s observer at this week’s commission hearings. But I feel as if I’m arriving in the end days of this long nightmare that is Guantánamo. It is impossible to escape the chatter here that the whole thing is about to come to a screeching halt.
The signs are everywhere. Two military officers jokingly tell me that we have to lobby harder to get the prison shut before their deployments are over so they can make an early escape from this island. Another officer says Guantánamo is such a huge mess that Obama will have to work hard to clean it up, but it has to be done.
And everyone notices that attendance is way down. A couple of military personnel shut off the power in empty tents here in “Camp Justice.” As the only representative of a human rights group this week, my bed is the only one occupied in my six-bed tent. And the media pool is now down to just one reporter. It seems that all that is left to be done is for the new president to pull the plug on the whole operation on January 20.
When I lobby Congress on this issue, many members of Congress and staff fret about what comes next if the Guantánamo prison is shut. While there may be hard work and some political courage needed by the next president in shutting it down, it clearly needs to be done.
We have focused for years on the damage to the Constitution and the rule of law by sham procedures, secret evidence, and evidence obtained by torture, but as I walk among the tents, latrines, and barbed wire surrounding the makeshift “courthouse” on the tip of Castro’s Cuba, I have an even more gut reaction to what is happening here.
At the risk of sounding hokey, I can’t get beyond my simple gut feeling that nothing here is American. Instead of a stately marble courthouse in the center of town, we have a windowless metal building sitting on an abandoned runway and surrounded by rolls of barbed wire and a line of orange jersey barriers. Instead of courtrooms open to the public (often including victims) and the press coming in off the street, we have a few human rights observers and any reporter willing to strap himself or herself onto the cargo plane’s netting for a total of nine hours in the air. Instead of criminal justice coming from judges and lawyers stepping from law libraries into courtrooms, we have some of those same fine lawyers in t-shirts and tennis shoes hopping over power lines around makeshift tents.
I’m sure that I’m not the first to look around Camp Justice at Guantánamo and think one big hurricane would wipe away the whole thing. But how much better to have our new president be the one to wipe it away and bring back the America that we all cherish.