For the Love of Conan, Close Guantanamo Already

For those of us who fight for change, we have learned a hard lesson recently: Things can change, but they can also quickly change back. For those of us who supported President Obama when he pledged one year ago to close the Guantanamo Detention Center, today’s announcement that the Administration will continue to hold some detainees indefinitely without charge is frustrating and disappointing. The kerfuffle over Conan O’Brien in the past weeks embodies the feeling. For a few months there in late 2008 and early 2009, it was an exciting time. It seemed like things were changing. We were tired of the old ways, and, entrenched though they seemed, we discovered that we could upset them and replace them with something better. We watched a beloved ‘outsider’ hero, Conan O’Brien, take over The Tonight Show. And President Obama signed an executive order pledging to close Guantanamo in one year. These are hardly events on the same scale. But this week, as President Obama’s self-imposed deadline to close Guantanamo passes, Team Conan, a Facebook group in support of Conan hosting The Tonight Show, boasts some 200,000 members. Many people are furious – and disappointed – that Conan has been usurped by the old guard of Jay Leno, who seems to most of us to be unfunny and hopelessly out of touch. One big reason real change is so hard is that, as a species, we tend to like the status quo. Things could always be better, sure, but they could also be worse, and known evils are more comfortable than unknown ones. Fear can be a powerful motivator. NBC knows what it’s like to have Jay Leno host The Tonight Show, while Conan has only been at the helm for a few months. It seems like a surer bet to bring Leno back. When people are scared, they don’t want to take risks. But in making fear-driven decisions, we forget something important. Keeping the status quo is not a risk-free option. In fact, it is often riskier than making changes. This is especially obvious when you look at the long term consequences. In allowing Jay Leno to reascend The Tonight Show throne, NBC gives the appearance of solving its immediate financial problems with minimal risk, minimal unknowns. But it misses an opportunity to develop the talent necessary to make money in the years to come. As NBC cannibalizes its future for quick cash, the hope we had for Conan and for our own entertainment this year withers. In the last year, we have learned that the status quo of Guantanamo is powerfully entrenched. Despite calls across the board, from former President Bush to Robert Gates, to Colin Powell to close the prison – it remains open, more than eight years after the first detainee arrived, a year after President Obama ordered it closed. There have been practical difficulties in closing Guantanamo. But the main reason that it is open today is that many people believe that it is safer to have it open than the unknown alternative. A world without Guantanamo means, for some people, a degree of uncertainty: where would the worst of the worst (which clearly not all of them are) be, if not Guantanamo? There might be risks associated with closing Guantanamo. Some people who have been held there could cause us harm, if they are transferred elsewhere. But there certainly are risks, and concrete consequences, that we know, in keeping Guantanamo open. The prison serves as a recruiting tool for terrorism – for every individual we hold indefinitely, there are hundreds of people willing to take up the fight against us in the battlefield. It makes it difficult to work with our allies on key counter-terrorism efforts. It violates core American values and undermines our influential power throughout the world. It imperils the lives of the people held there who may be innocent. The status quo is far from being a low-risk option. It endangers Americans every day. And it makes it hard for our country to flourish long-term. As the deadline for closing Guantanamo passes, the task of doing so is not impossible: President Obama must keep working to make this change. Please sign this petition to send a message that Americans are still committed to this change. I’m sure Conan will land on his feet, and we children who grew up watching The Simpsons and Late Night will follow him to new projects on wiser networks. But the rush of hope that filled the air a year ago is subdued, as we are humbled by how hard it is to usher in lasting change. All we can do is keep up the good fight anyway. And not watch Jay Leno.

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Published on January 22, 2010

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