This afternoon the new president signed an executive order that will close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay naval base on the island of Cuba. Fine; he won the presidency, this is one of the things he promised to do, and he is going to do it. But there are several oddities to consider here. It was the opponents of Gitmo’s existence, not its advocates, who fetishized it and the proceedings therein. Gitmo was a means, not an end; one way of solving a convoluted problem that will not go away just because the facility is shuttered. Gitmo was a method of holding stateless actors—terrorists whose loyalty was not to a given country but to a group or movement–in a condition of statelessness. The purpose of doing so was to ensure that our enemies in the war on terror were not regularized, did not achieve the legal standing of lawful combatants in a sovereign fighting force. That was, as well, the reason they were denied the protections of the Geneva Convention, which, under the terms of the convention as written, they were not entitled to.
Determining how to deal with this unprecedented state of affairs is now the problem of the Obama administration, which will soon find the legal and moral problems raised by the detention of terrorists cannot be wished away with the stroke of an executive-action pen. If they are wished away in this manner without a corresponding seriousness about neutralizing the specific threat from captured terrorists, we will eventually reap the whirlwind and they will be responsible.
“We intend to win this fight,” President Obama said. “We are going to win it on our own terms.” That’s wonderful, as long as he remembers that the other people in the fight have their own terms too, and their terms won’t necessarily include letting us win it on our own terms.