Guantánamo turned 20. What next?
On January 11, 2002, just a few months after the September 11 attacks, a Navy photographer snapped a picture of 20 hooded men, shackled and kneeling inside barbed wire fences. Their orange jumpsuits contrasted sharply with the background, identifying them as prisoners — the first of about 780 men who would ultimately be detained inside Guantánamo Bay Military Prison. After twenty years, dozens still remain in Cuba, but at what cost?
The financial costs show up in the budget — more than $500 million dollars a year, or $13 million per person. While this is far, far greater than $78,000 the government spends for incarceration in maximum security prisons, it includes a “perk.” Since Gitmo is outside of the boundaries of the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled that many traditional legal protections don’t apply.
Therein lies the moral cost of keeping Guantánamo Bay open after two decades. Holding men for years and years without charges serves as a reminder to the world that America is failing to live up to its own standards, the ones that millions of schoolchildren pledge each day: “with liberty and justice for all.” Officials from around the globe, including from Russia, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan and Iran have criticized us for the indefinite detention that continues to take place there.
Presidents Obama and Biden each pledged to close the facility, but hit a roadblock: Congress. Republicans and Democrats, afraid of appearing weak on national security, have banded together to block the commander-in-chief from relocating a military prison. It will take courage for them to reevaluate their position, and that courage can come from us. As John Oliver put it, “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.”
The 2022 legislative package, the Blueprint for a Better America, overrides Congress’ previous restrictions and directs the President to close Guantánamo Bay Military Prison in 2023. For those 12 detainees who have been charged with or convicted of a crime, they would be brought to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for confinement during a trial and after a conviction. 18 of the remaining men, more than a third of whom have held without charges since 2002, have already been cleared for release and would be transferred to another country. This is how the hundreds and hundreds of previous detainees have left Cuba.
Decisions beyond the scope of a crowdsourced legislative package will have to be made about the nine individuals detained under President Bush who have not yet been charged with a crime or cleared for release. For each, one of those two options must be selected by those with the authority to do so. With the Navy planning to upgrade the medical facilities in Guantánamo to care for the aging prisoners, it’s clear that it’s a decision that many would be willing to put off indefinitely.
Sometimes being an adult means accepting responsibility for tough decisions. After 20 years of Guantánamo Bay, the question “What next?” has only one good answer: Close it down.