An Act of Strength, Not of Weakness: John Oliver on Closing Gitmo

By Elizabeth Topolosky

In an election cycle as dirty as this one, sometimes it takes a comedian to sift through slung mud to highlight important issues. On Sunday night John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, highlighted the situation of the “irreducible minimum”—the 31 men held at Guantanamo Bay not cleared for transfer, but who allegedly cannot be prosecuted because the evidence against them is insufficient or was obtained by torture. These men, like the detainment facility itself, occupy a grey area that raises numerous legal and moral questions, causing a myriad of problems for the United States.

As Oliver pointed out in characteristic rapid-fire jokes and video clips, Guantanamo has been costly for Americans. It costs over $7 million per prisoner per year to operate the facility. And there are other costs besides taxpayer dollars: the existence of the prison also compromises U.S. standing as an international human rights leader.

Last year, Oliver notes, the U.N. Human Rights Council conducted a review of the United States, heavily criticizing the prison at Guantanamo Bay for for failing international human rights standards. States with dubious human rights records like Iran, Sudan, and Libya, along with a number of U.S. European allies called for Gitmo’s closure. The United States, Oliver proclaimed, has lost so much of the moral high ground that even Vladimir Putin, rumored to have ordered the disappearance of political opponents, has said he “could not wrap his head around” keeping people indefinitely locked up without trial.

Gitmo has negatively impacted more than U.S. diplomatic relations as well. As many national security leaders have emphasized, it hurts military objectives and endangers U.S. soldiers and civilians. Both ISIS and al Qaeda have invoked the abuses at Guantanamo Bay, CIA black sites, and Abu Ghraib when recruiting for their jihad. ISIS has even modeled a prison after the U.S. detention center.

Given these high financial, diplomatic, and strategic costs it is imperative that the United States finds an alternative to the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects. As Oliver declares, “The War on Terror is not a traditional war with an exchange of prisoners at the end. We were never going to accept a formal surrender from the President of Terror.”

Prosecution in federal court is the best available alternative to the legally dubious practice of infinite detention. Federal courts have achieved convictions in nearly 600 terrorism cases since 9/11 and have over 200 years of precedent to pull from. Conversely, the military commissions have produced only eight convictions, four of which were later overturned on appeal. They are governed by ambiguous rules whose exact interpretation the commissions themselves are still struggling to define.

Furthermore, federal prosecutions and incarceration are many times cheaper than Guantanamo Bay and its commissions, costing just $78,000  per year to house a prisoner in a federal super max facility. Federal prosecution also removes an important ideological tool from the belts of extremist recruiters; by prosecuting terrorism suspects in military commissions, we implicitly acknowledge that terrorists are warriors rather than criminals.

Many who oppose Gitmo’s closure point to the fact that some released detainees have returned to terrorist activities as a reason to keep other detainees locked up indefinitely. But as John Oliver declares: “When you see a bumper sticker that says “Freedom isn’t Free,” this is what that means: standing up for our highest ideals even when it requires accepting a certain amount of risk.”

Ultimately, the costs of keeping Guantanamo open far outweigh the risks of recidivism, especially given that 85 percent of detainees transferred by the Obama Administration are not suspected of engaging in any terrorist or insurgent activity since their release from Gitmo detention.

Other opponents claim that by closing Guantanamo, America will seem weak. However, as Oliver notes, shutting down the infamous detention center should instead be viewed as an act of strength. It is difficult to admit past wrongs, and to stick to convictions in the face of opposition. But the United States has always been a strong country—one capable of defending itself, its ideals, and its allies—and it has always been strongest when its actions match its ideals.

By closing Gitmo, the United States would strike a heavy ideological blow to extremists across the world by showing that it is not afraid.


Published on October 12, 2016


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