Guantanamo is an Embarrasment

Jonathan Wallace

The Supreme Court decision this week invalidating the military commissions for Guantanamo prisoners, and holding them subject to the Geneva Conventions, provided a welcome return to reality from the harsh, fanciful and unrealistic world imagined for us by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

The most remarkable features of the Supreme Court decision were that it happened in any administration, and particularly that a Republican court yanked the leash on a Republican president. Despite manifest abuses that came to light later, the World War II era Supreme Court declined to invalidate the use of military commissions. It takes especial nerve for a court in wartime to fly in the face of the administration. We seemed to have reached a point where the President has alienated his own bases sufficiently (and it feels so little like an actual wartime) that the court was able to take action that would have frightened the courts sitting during previous wars. The swing of the court to the right across various appointments, while it may still have profound social consequences later, is somehow less fearful if the court will at least maintain its independence and continue to be willing to act as a check on Presidential power. The Imperial Presidency that Cheney and Rumsfeld tried to launch is not looking so imperial now.

Vice President Cheney gave a speech this week in which he referred to Congress' carving down of Presidential power after Watergate as a Bad Thing. This is, though it flew by without much attention, one of the most frightening statements he ever made. Richard Nixon was a neurotic man with the mind of a gangster. He encouraged burglary, illegal wiretaps, dirty campaign tricks and the infliction of beatings on people who opposed him. Cheney and Rumsfield seem to want the gangster presidency pioneered by Nixon: a world in which we do anything to anybody with impunity simply because we can. Their flavor of American exceptionalism is really staggering, coming from two such intelligent men: we are not better than anybody else because we are defending a free press, or due process, or other things they obviously don't care about. We are better than the world because we are the biggest, meanest gang going. Except we are not. Its always frightening when the people at the helm are too self-deluded to see at all clearly.

Guantanamo is a prime example of the desire to look big and bad shading over into the bureaucratic and tacky. We have hundreds of prisoners of whom many were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, traveling on the wrong bus to the wrong town when our complicated, morally relativistic Afghan or Pakistani allies swept them up and sold them to us. We then put them through Kafkaesque nightmares of interrogation and military commissions where they are not told the evidence against them. "Like a dog" was Josef K's exclamation as he was executed at the end of "The Trial", still baffled as to the accusation leading to his trial and death. Guantanamo has totally failed to establish us as big and bad, just as mean, mendacious and obsessed with red tape. The truly violent and scary people are there almost by accident, along with the students, tourists and men attending weddings sucked into the really indiscriminate vacuum of our "allies". The arguments that American courts had no jurisdiction because the prisoners are in Cuba, the attempts to deprive the federal courts of habeas corpus jurisdiction, the constantly looping excuses and endlessly inter-referential justifications are sad and cheesy and make us look very small. Lets recognize reality, shut the damn place down and get on with things.