Washington Matters


Obama's Gitmo Move Inflames Debate

Mark Willen

Expect a big political fight over the plan to shift suspected terrorists to Illinois prison.



Ask Americans if they want a prison in the neighborhood, and almost all of them will say no. Add that you intend to use it to incarcerate the world’s most dangerous terrorists, and the howls will reach outer space. Unless, apparently, you’re talking to someone in Illinois. Or more specifically, to one of the 450 residents in the village of Thomson, about 150 miles west of Chicago.

During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama promised repeatedly to close the controversial terrorist prison on Guantánamo, and within 24 hours of taking the oath of office, he signed an executive order to do so. But that left the question of where to put the detainees unresolved, and when the administration suggested dispersing them worldwide, with dozens coming to the U.S., everyone objected. Our European allies, who pushed so hard for the move, wanted no part of it, and in Congress, Democrats and Republicans finally found something to agree on: Not in my back yard.

One can theoretically have a healthy and rational debate on whether to close Gitmo and what to do with the detainees: Should they be treated as war combatants or as criminals? Does the Geneva Convention apply? What level of civil and criminal rights are they entitled to?

The Bush administration and most conservatives always came down hard on the side of regarding them as enemy combatants who weren’t entitled to any rights, but the Supreme Court took the opposing view more than once. And liberals in favor of closing Gitmo, including Obama, have long insisted the prison there does more harm than good to the war effort because it is the single greatest recruiting tool for al Qaeda.

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We could discuss all of these things if it weren’t for the fact that rational debates are no longer possible in the political arena. Republicans immediately attacked Obama’s plan in January and played the fear card: Do you want a terrorist escaping from a prison down the block from your house? Democrats were afraid to stand up to that, and they, too, said it was too dangerous. Never mind that we have safely imprisoned terrorists on U.S. soil many times before. Never mind that we routinely imprison the most dangerous killers and rapists not far from population centers. Once fear was out of the bag, the debate over rights and policy went out the window.

Until now that is. Obama kept working behind the scenes and came up with a novel approach to the not-in-my-back-yard refrain. Tuesday he announced he’s putting the prison in his own back yard – his home state of Illinois. And in a rare profile in courage, the Democratic governor of the state, Pat Quinn, is risking his reelection by supporting the move, as are the state’s two Democratic senators. It helps that the village of Thomson is avidly pursuing the prison, which will bring needed jobs to the community.

One of Gov. Quinn’s potential GOP opponents, former state Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan was quick to attack Quinn, accusing him of not understanding his responsibility to keep the citizens of Illinois safe. And another GOP contender, state Sen. Bill Brady, is asking the state attorney general to block the move.

That’s not likely, but there will be a debate in Congress, which must OK the plan. Most Democrats will rally behind the move now that Illinois is standing up for it, but there’ll be plenty of pressure on some, particularly in neighboring states, to insist it’s too risky. So the fight still has a long way to go.




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