On Thursday, Jan. 22, President Barack Obama signed an executive order for the closure of Guantanamo Bay within one year. Additionally, he wants the CIA to close other secret prison facilities around the world and put an end to various interrogation techniques employed by the U.S. military, including controversial waterboarding.
The political science and international relations departments at Knox welcomed the president’s decision. Professor Andrew Civettini said, “I was not surprised, I was relieved.”
“It’s a great decision in terms of its symbolism,” said professor Duane Oldfield. “Obama may be right to think that winning support [for the US] and undercutting support for Al Qaeda is more important than going out and killing operatives.”
“I think Obama thinks it’s a new chapter [in US history]. There’s no doubt Guantanamo has fostered negative opinions. If Obama’s able to achieve what he wants to achieve, it will be a change,” said professor Lane Sunderland.
Civettini believes Guantanamo is an illegal detention facility and is glad it is being shut down.
“We’ve violated the terms of the lease [with Cuba]. We’re not allowed to use it as a detention facility; Cuba would be able to kick us out,” he said.
With the decision to close the base, “we’re honoring the Geneva convention and our international agreements,” he said. “It signals a policy shift away from techniques that violate our constitution, our laws and international treaties we’ve signed.”
“There’s no reason prisoners can’t be detained at a legitimate facility. Illegitimacy punctuates the possibility that things will be outside the rule of law,” said Civettini.
“I was glad to see he didn’t make his decision precipitously, [that is] within a year we have to decide what to do,” said professor Sue Hulett, chair of the international relations department.
Most professors of the political science department are skeptical that everything can be taken care of within a year.
“I’m skeptical it can be done in a year. Even if we rebuild Alcatraz it would take more than a year,” said Sunderland.
“In one sense it is feasible immediately, [but] in practical terms there are procedural problems, such as where to put the people who are dangerous, and [those] whose own countries don’t want them,” said Oldfield.
As Oldfield said, the executive decision is not as simple as shutting down the building and moving the prisoners. Now the question is what facilities can fill the role Guantanamo provided.
Guantanamo dealt with a “unique category, a separate category of danger,” said Hulett. “Maybe the PR part of closing that base down is worth the difficulties of integrating [the prisoners] into the military prison.”
One of the questions arising is where to put the guilty prisoners once the base is shut down.
Oldfield believes “we need to look carefully at what happens to the people [currently held in Guantanamo]. It’s not quite clear where these people would go… depending on that [factor] will made a tremendous difference to the rest of the world.”
Hulett said the prisoners should go to military prisons, “not only to keep them separate [from state penitentiaries] but also [to enhance] their protection.”
Additionally, there are more complicated cases concerning dangerous individuals that cannot be repatriated, but for whom there is not enough declassified evidence to be prosecuted.
There are “maybe 70 [prisoners] we’d like to free…but their countries of origin won’t take them; they’re a security threat,” said Hulett.
One of the possibilities to deal with integrating these prisoners and moving them out of Guantanamo is giving them unique trials that fit their specific detention statuses. Obama “is enjoying an extraordinary wave of popularity, but we have to ensure we work in accordance with the Constitution,” said Sunderland.
Obama’s order to abolish torture techniques, including waterboarding, got mixed responses from the department. This technique also sparked controversy when it was contested by protesting Knox students during Former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s visit to campus last year.
Hulett is against the use of torture, but still believes the US should be employing interrogation tactics. Hulett prefers we use “enhanced interrogation techniques,” that is, techniques such as sleep deprivation that are “irritating and painful to the senses” but do not cause lasting harm.
“Pressure and pain that don’t lead to permanent injury is acceptable,” said Hulett, “but not torture.”
Hulett calls waterboarding a “celebrated cause” in torture discussions because it’s “still a live question,” that is, it remains very divisive.
Civettini, on the other hand, disagrees with the US’s use of violent techniques for both strategic and moral reasons.
“There is no independent evidence, only that of the CIA and the KGB, that shows a positive effect from these coercive techniques.” Rather, Civettini said, you end up with “a high quantity of unusable information.”
Violence enacted by prison guards against prisoners is seen throughout multiple levels of the justice systems. Civettini said, “That type of violence only perpetuates itself. You must have a ‘twisted morality’ to believe that violence is right and necessary, and bystanders then begin to internalize this view that it’s right to use violence. You get a situation where any kind of violence is considered necessary and right and that cycle doesn’t end until you eliminate the victim.”
Making Obama’s order personal, Civettini said, “Don’t use violence or terror against any citizens. [It’s the] only way in the long run to ensure it’s not used against you.”