Reports from the Obama camp indicate that one of his first acts as president will be new executive orders to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and definitively put an end to the use of torture as an acceptable practice for military or intelligence operatives. Other sources say that this might not happen so quickly. The debate bears close watching for what it will signal about President Obama’s willingness to implement campaign promises.
No presidential act would establish a new day for America more firmly than swiftly ending this disgraceful chapter in American history. The prison at Guantanamo Bay — “Gitmo” for short — has been a blight on American history, American values, the rule of law and our nation’s longstanding commitment to justice for all. Whatever horrific acts the detainees (prisoners) may or may not be guilty of perpetrating — and have no doubt, some of them are truly terrorists — in our system of law and justice every accused person has a right to know what the charges are and to have his or her day in court. The “detainees” at Gitmo have been held for years without any respect for due process, and their conditions are an abomination.
I was reminded of our nation’s long history of giving even the most hated enemy the requisite day in court when I recently watched the first segment of the splendid HBO production of “John Adams,” the film adaptation of David McCullough’s excellent biography of this remarkable leader of the American Revolution. The audience first encounters Adams as a young lawyer in Boston who believes so ardently in the rule of law and principles of justice that he agrees to defend the much-hated British troops who fired on and killed a group of Bostonians. Adams was pilloried by his friends and other citizens of Boston for defending the British, but in the end, justice prevailed.
This nation was forged in a bitter war whose purpose was to break free from old notions of tyranny, religious and social oppression perpetrated by European monarchies. The “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence remain the bedrock of our nation’s moral and political philosophy — equality of each person, justice for all, the rights to life and liberty. Since 1776, millions of Americans have fought and died to protect the American ideal, and millions more have given their lives and careers in service to these principles.
Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20 signifies a new chapter in the still-unfolding American story of justice and freedom. By demanding that our military and intelligence practices rejoin the American rule of law, he will truly enact the “change we need” in fact, not simply in rhetoric.