In 1981, when IRA terrorist Bobby Sands was starving himself to death while in a British prison, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did not order him force fed, she did not give in to his political demands (to be recognized as a political prisoner, not a common criminal)–and she did not mourn his passing. She declared on the floor of the House of Commons: “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organization did not allow to many of its victims.” With statements like that, Thatcher established her reputation as the Iron Lady–a leader not to be trifled with.
What reputation, one wonders, is President Obama establishing with his response to the hunger strike mounted by 100 or so of the detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay? Instead of saying that terrorists are welcome to starve themselves to death if they so desire, Obama predictably expressed a desire to cave in to their demands–if he could. At a news conference on Tuesday, he reiterated his desire to close Gitmo, something that Congress has not allowed him to do. This is what he said:
The notion that we’re going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity, even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’re having success defeating al Qaeda core, we’ve kept the pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks, when we’ve transferred detention authority in Afghanistan — the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop…. I don’t want these individuals to die. Obviously, the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can. But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this? Why are we doing this?
Not exactly Thatcherite–to say nothing of Churchillian–defiance of the terrorists’ demands, to say the least. He could easily have explained why we are doing this: Because there is a group of terrorists who cannot be convicted in a civilian court but who must remain locked up because they represent a continuing threat. He could have gone on to point out that a long list of detainees released from Gitmo have returned to terrorism, and he could have concluded by making clear that he would do whatever is necessary to keep Americans safe–even if it provokes protest from those locked up.
The president is a master orator who could easily have used his eloquence and his global reputation to defend America’s counter-terrorism efforts. Instead, he seemed to agree with the detainees’ claim that the U.S. is doing something wrong by keeping them locked up–a policy ratified by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress and by the American people.