Detainee Flu

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Among the five ways Obama is, in the view of Kristol’s latest WaPo column, “surprisingly vulnerable to political and substantive attack,” is his decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Kristol does not specify the nature of the president’s Guantanamo problem, contenting himself with the reflection that it is very like Jimmy Carter’s returning the Panama Canal to Panamanian control–“a perhaps mostly symbolic issue that caused terrible political problems
for both the Democratic administration and Democrats in Congress.” For him, this is merely a political target of opportunity. Not that the analogy is perfect; after all, the U.S. really did surrender control of an important piece of real estate and regaining sovereignty over the Canal Zone was hardly a symbolic issue for the Panamanians.

On the other hand, to call Guantanamo “a perhaps mostly symbolic issue” is an understatement. The Supreme Court has determined that it makes no legal difference whether the prisoners are held there or in the U.S. proper, and no one seriously proposes that American high-security prisons are incapable of holding dangerous persons. So what, exactly, is the symbolic problem here?

In a smart article in Religion in the News on the Oklahoma City bombing eight years ago, Ed Linenthal argued that transgressors like Timothy McVeigh are treated as “contaminants of the body politic” that somehow represent a toxic presence wherever they happen to have been present on American soil. Ed distinguishes such native sources of contagion from alien ones, but it seems to me that the Guantanamo detainees represent the same sort toxicity. Their mere presence on American soil is metaphysically intolerable.  

Does this interpretation seem a little too academic for your taste? Well, last week the House Appropriations Committee defeated an amendment by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan. that would prevent any detainee from
entering the United States. “Do
you want the terrorists in your hometown?” Tiahrt asked. He went on say, according to Fox, that “the government frequently tells people to wear their seatbelts and
wash their hands to stay clear of H1N1 flu, and a vote for his
amendment would also bolster safety.”

I’m inclined to doubt that Guantanamo will achieve the traction that the Panama Canal did three decades ago. But it won’t be for lack of Kristoline agitation.