Friday, May 6, 2011

Guantanamo, the Saudi Secret Police, or a Predator Drone

Pick one.

There was a large crowd who vigorously opposed indefinite detention in places like Guantanamo Bay. It included a bunch of people I respect, like Coyote, and others I was more ambivalent on. One of the famous supporters was Barack Obama circa 2007.

Thankfully, once in office, Obama decided to loudly proclaim that he was going to shut Guantanamo Bay, then quietly proceeded with business as usual. The left claimed it felt betrayed, but never managed to muster the same outrage as they did for Bush.

The question is, why didn't Obama shut it down?

The answer, which I'm far from the first one to point out, is that he can't.

Inside, you have a bunch of guys who were captured on the battlefield shooting at US troops (or a bunch of innocent goatherds, depending on your perspective - even if it's the latter, as long as people believe they might be terrorists, you're still stuck).

These people can't be tried in a civilian court easily, because marines shooting at terrorists aren't busy being forensic detectives collecting evidence. In addition, these guys didn't get their court appointed attorney turning up as soon as they put down their Kalashnikov. If you hold these types of trials, they tend to fail. The Bush administration tried for a compromise with military tribunals, but the Supreme Court kept declaring parts of this unconstitutional - they were going to get a full trial, or (as it happened), nothing at all.

So what are your other options?

One is the status quo - lock them up forever. Nobody needs to point out the problems with this, either as a matter of justice or as a matter or politics. It's a crappy solution.

You could just shoot them when you're done. This would have been standard operating procedure from the dawn of man until some time during the 20th century, but it ain't going to be done now.

Another is move them to somewhere else. But where? The US isn't going to let the terrorists free there. There's roughly three types of places.

1. First world countries, who won't touch them with a ten foot pole.

2. Thuggish anti-terrorist regimes, who will deliver them to their secret police for torture and execution.

3. Failed or terrorist-supporting states, who will release them immediately.

The US has tended to go with option 3 for some of them (knowing that they'll come back to start fighting against the west again immediately) and indefinite detention for the ones they view as too risky to be let back out to join Al Qaeda.

Short answer, once you've captured them, there's no good options. Additionally, people have figured this out in a way that they hadn't earlier on in the current wars.

So the question is, if you're a commander in Afghanistan, you see a bunch of possible terrorists that you suspect you might be able to capture, or you could just blast them and not ask any questions. Which one will you do?

If you capture them, it will just lead to non-stop headaches for the next decade, as people try to figure out what the hell to do with them.

If you just blast them, nobody will question your decision. Too risky to send in men, known terrorist threat etc.

In entirely unrelated news to Obama's position on Guantanamo, here's the current rate of Predator Drone strikes, according to Victor Davis Hanson:
[W]e have executed from the air well over 1,500 suspected terrorists by Predators. President Obama has ordered four times as many drone attacks in the last two years as former president Bush did in eight.
That, my friends, is the actual tradeoff you make. If you can't convict them in court, your options are to lock them up forever, or kill them on the spot.

The current prisoners in Guantanamo are the seen. Everyone loves to help those guys - they've got armies of pro bono lawyers from the best firms in the US lining up to volunteer their services. The potential future prisoners of Guantanamo, being daily riddled with bullets, are the unseen. Nobody gives a flying f*** about them.

Put that way, the morality becomes a bit more complicated, doesn't it? Do you think the people involved would rather be vaporised with a hellfire missile instead of being in maximum security prison? If so, you'll love our new policy for domestic crime - execute all the inmates for their own good! Predator drones might sooth your troubled conscience, but only because you don't have to think about the tradeoff involved. Don't kid yourself that you're actually helping the guys who might otherwise be captured.

It's easy to rail against Guantanamo, as lots of people do. It's a lot harder to come up with an obviously better alternative. My guess is that Barack Obama started figuring this out real fast once he issued his order to shut down Guantanamo, and the terrorists have been learning it ever since, one predator drone strike at a time.

Update: Well, would you look at that!

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