President Obama didn’t keep his campaign promise to close the American prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Yesterday marked Gitmo’s 10th anniversary. The camp on Cuba, conveniently perhaps outside the jurisdiction of normal legal procedures in the United States, has held nearly 800 prisoners at times. There are still 171 people still in custody there, held without the prospect of a fair trial in sight.
Candidate Obama promised to close the camp within a year of taking office, forcefully arguing that detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely without access to habeas corpus violated basic American values–and laws, and undermined America’s credibility globally:
By any measure, our system of trying detainees has been a failure. Over the course of nearly seven years, there has not been a single conviction for a terrorist act at Guantanamo. There has just been one conviction for material support of terrorism…Meanwhile, this legal black hole has substantially set back America’s ability to lead the world against the threat of terrorism, and undermined our most basic values. But make no mistake: we are less safe because of the way George Bush has handled this issue.
To be sure, he faced opposition from Congress, but this is an easy promise to score. It’s 0.
But it’s not a defect or defeat that his Republican opponents are taking him to task for. The issue is largely absent from the political campaign, and it’s unlikely that any presidential candidate will bring it up. Most Americans seem to have forgotten. (See Dahlia Lithwick’s piece at Slate.)
Yesterday, organized by Amnesty International, activists protested against the continued existence of the camp, and the web of policies tied to it. In Washington, DC, hundreds showed up, some in orange jumpsuits, to remind the president–and the rest of us–of his promise and, more importantly, of the prison camp. There were smaller demonstrations in cities across the United States and around the world.
Protests can work to keep an issue from disappearing, even when the near-term prospects of influence are bleak. In covering the demonstrations, mainstream news outlets have a chance to report, again, on the prison camp and a decade of detention. Activists try to become a conscience that reminds about us about something that has been, for most, rather easy to forget. Even absent a serious substantive debate–much less policy change–this is an important job, one that may make organizing–or even reform–possible later.
Maybe much later.