Obushma-Biney in the Home of the Frightened

The spinelessness and moral cowardice of the Obama administration know no bounds.  The Bush-Cheney  team ordered the torture and abuse of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and assorted other locations abroad – offshore detention without trial as well as torture by US officials or persons acting under their instructions being permitted by Article VIII of the United States Constitution, as confirmed in the XXVIIIth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Candidate Obama declares he abhors torture and deplores what went on in Gitmo and in secret detention centres around the world, but President Obama decides that the Camp may have to remain open for another year, as he doesn’t seem to know what to do with the prisoners.  The right thing to do would have been to send a plane to Guantánamo Bay Naval Base on the day of his inauguration, to move all the prisoners to the US.

President Obama then also decides not to prosecute those who committed the crimes of torture or abuse of prisoners or were responsible for these crimes. The president’s excuse was was that he sought to turn the page on “a dark and painful chapter”.  It was a “time for reflection, not for retribution”, he said.

He is quite wrong.  Reflection complements the law.  It is not a substitute for it.  Those who can be charged with these offences should be tried and, if found guilty, punished according to the law.  If among the guilty parties are CIA agents and former vice-president Dick Cheney, then so be it.  If you cannot do the time, you should not do the crime.  This is not vengeance, it is justice – and it is the law.  Justice must be done and must be seen to be done before healing and reconciliation can start.

Then the Senate, controlled by the Democrats, voted 90-6 against closing Guantánamo. The US Senate, reflecting, regrettably, the majority view of the American people, did not want the prisoners to be moved to the US.  As there appear to be fewer than 10 righteous people in the Senate (unless the four missing votes would all have been cast in favour of closing Gitmo), I hope the Lord is kinder to the US Senate than He was to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate, explained he did not want these terrorists released in the US.  That, of course, was not even on the cards under what Obama had in mind.  President Obama has said: “There may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States….Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people.” He then went on to defend his proposal for closing Gitmo and moving the prisoners to the US with the argument that no-one had ever escaped from the maximum security prisons that the Gitmo detainees would be sent to.  How warped can you get?

The right and legal thing to do would be to take all the prisoners to the US, charge those who can be charged and release those who cannot be charged.  Those who can be sent back to their countries of origin without endangering their safety can be sent back.  The rest should be allowed to stay in the US (the principle in question is: ‘you break it, you own it’).  Those charged then should be tried in a proper US court, not one of the kangaroo quasi-military tribunals created by Bush and Cheney.  If convicted, they should serve their time, or pay with their lives, as the case may be.  If acquitted they should be released.  That is the rule of law.  It is also the right and moral thing to do.

With Bush and Cheney, one often had the sense that they did not know what was wrong and what was right.  Obama clearly knows the difference, but knowingly chooses the wrong option: video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor.  The physical safety and security of the American people should not be the first and overriding concern of the US president.  Preserving our freedom, as set out in the Bill of Rights, is.  Hundreds of thousands have died to preserve that liberty.  During World War II alone more than 400,000 Americans gave their lives in the cause of freedom.

To Patrick Henry is attributed the famous saying: “Give me Liberty, or give me Death”.  The moral midgets and yellow-bellies in the US Senate and White House today would have said instead: “Give me security and comfort or I will curl up in a ball and refuse to vote for you again”.

What accounts for this transformation of the US polity into a collection of Angsthasen?

I was in the US shortly before 9/11 and shortly afterwards.  The transformation in the public psyche was astonishing.  Not just in New York and Washington DC, but everywhere I went, people were traumatised and visibly and audibly afraid.  Both reason and principles went out of the window.  It is true that this was the first serious ‘external’ attack on the US mainland since the War of 1812.  There has been extremely bloody conflict since then, but all of it internal, including the Civil War and the routine fire-arms-related private violence which claims currently around 15,000 lives each year (not counting a somewhat larger number of fire-arms-related suicides).

September 11, 2001 is more than seven and a half years in the past, but the US polity and public appear no less traumatised by it today than they were in the immediate aftermath of the outrages.  A very primal mood of insecurity and fear continues to afflict most of the nation and its politicians.

Fear is a poor guide to policy.  It caused the US to launch an unnecessary second war against Iraq and it led its leaders to compromise the most important principles on which the country was founded.  The fear-induced response of the US authorities to the murderous outrages perpetrated by Al-Queda has turned out to be a much more serious threat to what is best about the US than Al-Queda itself.  Bush, Cheney and now also Obama and Reid represent a greater threat to my liberty and fundamental rights as a citizen and a human being than Osama bin Laden and his mindless murderers.

The US president and the majority leader in the US Senate have torn up the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, supposedly in the interest of the nation’s security and to preserve the safety of its people.  I hope the blind fear that has de-activated the moral antennae of the American people will subside to the point that a majority will join me in loudly and clearly telling the country’s leadership that its depredations against the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not in our name.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website

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