Monday, February 02, 2009

Abraham Lincoln on Guantánamo

As we approach the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, our sixteenth president provides what sounds like a call to action regarding the policies and injustices that resulted from the law-free zone in Guantánamo: “To correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy, and from positive enmity, among strangers, as nations, or as individuals, is one of the highest functions of civilization.” The reference to strangers is what caught my eye. The break from the rule of law in Guantánamo could only happen in a context where, instead of fellow humans, the prisoners there were dehumanized and demonized as the faceless other – the worst of the worst.

In 1859, with memories of the Mexican War recent and ferment about slavery pressing, Mr. Lincoln made his statement in the context of the deep-rooted problem of xenophobia and the struggle to overcome the evils resulting from abasement of the other:

"From the first appearance of man upon the earth, down to very recent times, the words “stranger” and “enemy” were quite or almost synonymous. Long after civilized nations had defined robbery and murder as high crimes, and had affixed severe punishments to them, when practiced among and upon their own people respectively, it was deemed no offence, but even meritorious, to rob, and murder, and enslave strangers, whether as nations or as individuals. Even yet, this has not totally disappeared. The man of the highest moral cultivation, in spite of all which abstract principle can do, likes him whom he does know, much better than him whom he does not know. To correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy, and from positive enmity, among strangers, as nations, or as individuals, is one of the highest functions of civilization."

The future president’s underlying idea is both timeless and fresh: How do we recognize and combat the injustices easily visited on strangers that we would never inflict on our family, friends, and neighbors? How do we keep in mind the humanity of others when prejudice and propaganda desensitize us to the real harm others suffer?

Attorneys representing Guantánamo prisoners know that the repeated claim that everyone being held is the “worst of the worst” is simply untrue. Time and again, investigation has verified that men so described were in fact innocent victims of mistaken identification, charity workers, victims of our enemies, refugees. But the point is not that all prisoners are innocent, or low level, or war criminals. The fallacy is in trying to judge a group instead of the individuals, with their infinite variations of personality and experience.

Our new president, who pays attention to the legacy of Lincoln, has ordered the closing of Guantánamo and reexamination of the individual cases of the men held there. Almost 25% of the 242 remaining prisoners cannot be repatriated to their home countries because they would face torture or death there. The relocation process is at an impasse because European countries have yet to agree to accept Guantánamo prisoners. Although Europeans express willingness to help close the facility, the unwillingness of the United States to accept any such prisoners has proved an obstacle: why should they help solve a problem that the United States created if the United States will not act?

Which gets back to the need “to correct the evils, great and small,” that resulted from Guantánamo. There are seventeen ethnic Uighurs from China who, after years in Guantánamo, were cleared of being enemy combatants but who languish in Guantánamo with no available place of refuge. There are persons who face serious charges that can only be fairly adjudicated in United States criminal courts. There are prisoners with a wide array of unique circumstances who need individualized plans for refuge and resettlement.

To close Guantánamo, some prisoners will need to be returned to their country of origin, some will need to be placed in the United States or other asylum countries, and some will stand trial in United States court houses, as they should have years ago. By closing Guantánamo, our country’s national security is strengthened. The moral authority of our core values is reinforced, while depriving our enemies of a rallying point and an excuse to abuse captured Americans. As the chief judge of Guantánamo’s now-suspended military commissions stated about torture, “If we tolerate this and allow it, how can we object when our service men and women are subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain?”

To return to the rule of law, as a manifestation of Mr. Lincoln’s “highest functions of civilization,” we need to expeditiously correct the real evils – to individuals and to institutions – that have resulted from our abandonment of first principles. The first steps are closing the prison, resettling or charging the prisoners, and providing redress for the innocent.

Stephen Sady, Chief Deputy Federal Public Defender, Portland, Oregon


Blogger the default attorney said...

Wow. Great quote. Great post too.

Thursday, February 05, 2009 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Litigious Mind said...

Great post. Just this week I found myself in a conversation with a friend about closing Guantanamo. She kept saying, "But they're terrorists," and I kept saying, "They're human beings." Somehow that was lost on much of the public, it seems.

Thursday, February 05, 2009 12:57:00 PM  

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